“Principle is important to my family,” acclaimed Maine novelist Roxana Robinson writes in the preface to “Dawson’s Fall.” The quasi-fictionalized, quasi-biographical story she goes on to weave in “Dawson’s Fall” follows the lives of Francis Warrington Dawson and Sarah Morgan Dawson, her own great-grandparents. Part history, part family saga, the book peers into the cauldron of race as it simmered and flared during Reconstruction in the South.

Courtesy of Sarah Crichton Books

“How did people of principle navigate the ethical maelstrom of slavery?” Robinson asks. “How could they maintain personal integrity during that dark basilisk reign, or during its terrible aftermath?”

In Francis and Sarah Dawson, one an English free thinker, the other from a family of slave owners, Robinson is lucky to have two compelling, complex central characters.

The year is 1889, deep in the smoldering aftermath of Appomattox. Robinson’s great grandfather is co-founder and editor of the once prosperous, now floundering Charleston News News and Courier in South Carolina. He is bright and opinionated, and in the public debate over the treatment of former slaves, he often stands alone. That makes Dawson a natural target for the many adversaries seeking to make a name or a career for themselves by taking him down. Dawson believes that Southerners must shoulder the burden of settling and educating the former slaves. His principles have cost him readers, advertisers, backers – and friends.

In the opening scene, Dawson dreams of struggling with a stranger who wants to shoot him. He hears the gunshot, and feels himself falling, a feeling that lingers even after he awakens. Dawson tells Sarah his dream, who gently teases out its meaning. Their intimate bond is immediately clear. What the Dawsons want most is to savor their lives as parents and loving partners. But as the story unfolds, they find themselves unable to escape the troubled times they live in.

The facts in “Dawson’s Fall” are true “as far as I could determine,” Robinson writes. The letters, diary entries and other published sources she relies on are real and quoted verbatim. “As a biographer, I hewed to the facts,” she writes. “As a novelist, I wrote this as a living, breathing tale.”

Frank Dawson was born Austin John Reeks in England. When the Union invaded the South, young Dawson was outraged from afar that Southerners were under attack. His plan to run away to join the Confederate navy earned his father’s wrath. It would ruin the family name, his father said, forbidding him. To avoid disgracing the family, Reeks renamed himself Francis Dawson. His eventual wife, Sarah Morgan Dawson, grew up in Baton Rouge. Her father was raised in Philadelphia, waited on by dark-skinned “servants,” a word he and his family continue to employ in Louisiana for the nine slaves they own.

When the two meet for the first time after the war, Sarah asks Dawson if he has a mission for his paper. Most certainly: ‘To maintain the honor and promote the welfare of the Southern people.’” Though he’d felt the South was wrongly attacked by the North, when he witnesses the Reconstruction, his ideas on how to promote “the welfare of the Southern people” undergo a substantial change.

One of the book’s pivotal moments occurs when Sarah’s favorite brother, Hal, 26, is killed in a duel. Robinson uses the dramatic, shocking event to illuminate the larger context of disruption that fractured everything after the Civil War.

“A family’s decline can be slow and imperceptible or sudden and precipitous,” Robinson writes. “It was Hal’s death which taught the Morgans that what they had always taken for granted was not theirs.”

In the larger context, Robinson looks at how such feelings of entitlement were rife throughout the South. Whites, especially those who’d lost slaves and land, opposed the newly won rights of blacks to vote, to carry guns or even to earn wages. Negroes wielding any kind of power went against their grain,” Robinson writes. “What slavery had done was make every white man lord. White men were born with power, which meant they felt they deserved it.”

But Dawson fervently believes that since whites created the tragic plight of the freedmen, “We can’t treat them this way,” as he writes in the News and Courier. “Their misery is our fault (and it’s) our duty to solve it.”

Most Charlestonians find his sentiments offensive, and a loan to float the paper is denied. The couple ponder what to do, entertaining the possibility of his taking a job in St. Louis. But the idea is loathsome to Frank, who sees it as signaling his own defeat and failure. “‘I thought I’d made my life here,’” Dawson tells his wife. ‘We all thought that,” she replies.

As “Dawson’s Fall” moves toward resolution, the story gets more complex. A black girl is raped by a white man, and a black vigilante group lynch the perpetrator. Dawson leaps to take on the cause as a new crusade, turning the debate to focus on the violence and immorality of all lynchings — whatever the color of those involved. A final crucial story line involves Helene, a young Swiss girl and the Dawson children’s governess who gets caught in the snares of a sociopathic doctor. Propriety and jealousy fatally clash – as a matter of principle.

A fascinating read, “Dawson’s Fall” illuminates the destructive antecedents some 150 years ago of racial tensions that remain with us today. I wished, at times, that Robinson had hewed a little less closely to fact. More invention might have given some scenes a harder edge, underlining what was so deeply at risk in the decades after the Civil War. That said, “Dawson’s Fall” pointedly makes the case that principles matter.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. It was also named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by “Shelf Unbound.” Reach him through his website, frankosmithstories.com.


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