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Dawson's Fall: Book summary and reviews of Dawson's Fall by Roxana Robinson

Dawson's Fall

by Roxana Robinson

Dawson's Fall by Roxana Robinson X
Dawson's Fall by Roxana Robinson
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  • Published May 2019
    352 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

A cinematic Reconstruction-era drama of violence and fraught moral reckoning.

In Dawson's Fall, a novel based on the lives of Roxana Robinson's great-grandparents, we see America at its most fragile, fraught, and malleable. Set in 1889, in Charleston, South Carolina, Robinson's tale weaves her family's journal entries and letters with a novelist's narrative grace, and spans the life of her tragic hero, Frank Dawson, as he attempts to navigate the country's new political, social, and moral landscape.

Dawson, a man of fierce opinions, came to this country as a young Englishman to fight for the Confederacy in a war he understood as a conflict over states' rights. He later became the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, finding a platform of real influence in the editorial column and emerging as a voice of the New South. With his wife and two children, he tried to lead a life that adhered to his staunch principles: equal rights, rule of law, and nonviolence, unswayed by the caprices of popular opinion. But he couldn't control the political whims of his readers. As he wrangled diligently in his columns with questions of citizenship, equality, justice, and slavery, his newspaper rapidly lost readership, and he was plagued by financial worries. Nor could Dawson control the whims of the heart: his Swiss governess became embroiled in a tense affair with a drunkard doctor, which threatened to stain his family's reputation. In the end, Dawson―a man in many ways representative of the country at this time―was felled by the very violence he vehemently opposed.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"A stylish and contemplative historical novel, considerate of facts but not burdened by them." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"The interspersed family letters and newspaper articles, while intriguing, seem spliced rather than woven into a narrative that leaps by years before settling on one fateful day in March 1889. But Robinson's descriptive and imaginative prose sings; this book is a startling reminder of the immoral and lasting brutality visited on the South by the institution of slavery." - Publishers Weekly

"Dawson's Fall is a remarkable achievement, a fully realized vision of a time and place long gone. I was astonished by the ease with which Roxana Robinson meshes the known and the imagined to make a texture utterly trustable and often stunning. Most of all I was impressed by the language of this book, at once restrained and powerful; the delight in detail; the telling word. This is masterful writing." - Josephine Humphreys, author of Nowhere Else on Earth

"Dawson's Fall grips us with fascinating characters, great and small, caught in the powerful unfolding of events that have shaped our country, and Robinson's own wise, clear-eyed, and heartfelt narrative." - Amy Bloom, author of White Houses

"The past springs brilliantly to life in this tragic and compelling story, as accurate and fully realized a depiction of daily life and the extraordinary events of this time as has ever been written." - Lee Smith, author of Dimestore: A Writer's Life

"She draws on letters, journals and newspaper articles about them and adds her own novelistic grace to make them come to life. With a fine eye for detail, she describes the horrors of the post-war period of racism and violence they could not escape." - Frances FitzGerald, author of The Evangelicals

"With complicated characters and a rich sense of time and place, this is an immersive tale about the meaning of America." - T. J. Stiles, author of Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America

This information about Dawson's Fall was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Cathryn Conroy

The First Half Is a Slog…but Keep Reading! The Reward of the Second Half Is So Very Much Worth It
Question: When you're reading a book you don't particularly like, do you stop—as in, too many books, too little time—or do keep going so that if it gets better, you won't miss out on something amazing? I fall into the latter category. (I always keep going…no matter what.) And I'm so happy I kept trudging through the first half of this book because the second half is exceptional.

Written by Roxana Robinson, this is the true story of her ancestors beginning with one Francis Warrington Dawson, who in 1862 at age 21 left his home country of England and sailed to the United States so he could fight for the confederacy. Dawson was a bit confused about the point of the Civil War, thinking it was only about state's rights and not realizing the true reason: the scourge of slavery in the South. Still, he fought and he stayed, settling in Charleston, South Carolina where he owned and edited a newspaper—one that was so liberal and so divergent from common Southern sentiment at the time that he struggled to keep the paper in print.

The first half of this book felt like a bait-and-switch to me. It is billed as a novel, a work of fiction. But when I started reading, it felt like nonfiction—so much so, that I checked to verify it was a novel! The author was blessed to have access to numerous primary sources, including diaries, copious family papers, and the content of Dawson's newspapers. Instead of using those resources to better tell a fictional tale, she uses those resources as the bones of the book. The "story" is secondary. Diary entries, some of which are very long, and (bizarre, but fascinating) newspaper stories dominate the first half of the book.

And then suddenly—and it really is quite suddenly—the narrative totally changes tone and becomes what I thought the book would be when I bought it: a fascinating, extraordinarily well-written historical novel with fully-developed characters and a compelling, enthralling plot that will keep you reading. I understand that the first half of the book, which was a bit of a slog to read, set the stage for the main story by delineating the background facts; I just wish an editor had encouraged the author to rewrite it—and still give all the facts—so it better fit the mold of a novel.

All this said, the underlying message of the book—how we treat "the other"—is so vitally important. In this case, the focus is on the former Southern slaves, who after emancipation suffered extraordinary poverty, high mortality rates, and a generally miserable existence. In the South in the decades following the Civil War it often felt as if white society followed the rule of violence instead of the rule of law. The book's historical message still resonates quite loudly for today's politics.

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Author Information

Roxana Robinson Author Biography

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Roxana Robinson is the award-winning author of six novels and three short story collections. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, and other publications. She lives in New York City and Connecticut, spends as much time as she can in Maine, and teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College.

Link to Roxana Robinson's Website

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