BLUE HILL — At first nothing much seems to happen in Roxana Robinson’s new book, “Dawson’s Fall” (Sarah Crichton Books, 2019 327 pages.) We are flies on the wall in the household of a young man in London — the future Confederate soldier and newspaper editor Frank Dawson, as he decides to leave his home in England to join the Confederate cause.
Then we’re off to Baton Rouge, La., where we get to peek at the diary of 19-year-old Sarah Morgan as she writes about a day out on the town with her sisters and friends.
These two — the young Londoner and the 19-year-old Sarah — are the author’s great-grandparents, both of whom we meet at the brink of the Civil War and follow through the painful post-war Reconstruction. They were both prolific writers, chronicling the events and their related opinions in their journals, diaries and newspaper editorials.
With some fictional embellishments, Robinson stays close to her source material and as we embark on this journey with her, there is an almost biblical tone to it, as she recounts the begets and marriages and family histories that belong to these two, and eventually lead them to each other.
We see a young rather self-righteous Frank get himself to America and enlist in the Confederate army. Despite some doubts about that peculiar institution of slavery, he sees it as an issue of states’ rights. We follow the young man into battle at Mechanicsville, Va., where he is wounded.
But this is not a war story. Perhaps Robinson’s great-grandfather did not dwell on these bloody battlefields in his journals, so we do not linger there either. Dawson’s war experiences feel sort of flipped through like a photo album.
Having recently read Ron Chernow’s “Grant” in which every campaign is described in excruciating detail, this rather cursory approach seems odd.
Instead of learning about battle strategies in the field we are whisked away to the Morgan family’s dinner table in Baton Rouge, where the family’s sons talk excitedly about joining the cause and the women fret but can’t imagine it’s going to affect their lives. It’s like reading about the Lincoln assassination from the point of view of the folks who lived next door to Ford’s Theatre. Huh?
Oh, but then stuff starts to happen, and Robinson’s approach — her sticking closely to the actual diary entries of her ancestors and newspaper accounts and editorials, makes devastating sense.
As Sarah’s diary entries describe the loss of her brothers, the havoc of the family fleeing their home as the Union army approach, we are right there. We don’t see the bullet wounds, the broken bodies of the battlefields, or hear the cannons but we do hear the wails of grief, experience almost firsthand, the unimaginable pain as this family is shattered beyond repair.
Chernow took much of the 1,000-plus pages of Grant to bring the Civil War to a close. In “Dawson’s Fall,” it’s over in a few chapters, leaving the reader a bit dazed, unmoored. Now what?
As post-war Reconstruction gets off to its shaky start, Robinson’s grandparents meet, marry, and have a family. They settle in Charleston, S.C., where Frank takes over the editorship of the local newspaper, urging the citizens — after lynchings and other crimes against the newly freed black population — to observe the rule of law.
OK, you think, this is what “Dawson’s Fall” is really about. A principled man struggling to do the right thing, send the right message during difficult times, despite the cost to himself personally and financially. But then out of the blue there is a murder conspiracy, an evil doctor, a jewel theft, poison, a pretty Swiss au pair, and as Robinson herself says “All the most preposterous things are true.”
Finally, it dawns on you that “Dawson’s Fall” isn’t about the war, the Reconstruction, politics, murder, morality etc. it’s about life — albeit an unusually interesting one, lived in extraordinary times. It’s about the messy, unexpected way things really happen and how the people involved try to cope and make sense of it all, sometimes succeeding, other times not. And in writing about these individual lives, Robinson also, perhaps inadvertently, explaining some difficult truths about our country’s history — also full of messy, unexpected twists and turns.
All this uncertainty, this unclear narrative destination can be disconcerting at times, but, boy, does it make for a fascinating read and the story of Frank Dawson, his wife, Sarah, and the America they lived in lingers long after you’ve closed the book.
“Dawson’s Fall” author and Mount Desert summer resident Roxana Robinson will read from and sign copies of her book from noon to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at the Blue Hill Public Library.