A new historical novel by award winning author Roxana Robinson explores her family’s history – a history that shocked and troubled her enough to take the topic of slavery head on.
Robinson has written five novels, including a well-received biography of Georgia O’Keefe, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts award for her work. Her latest novel, Dawson’s Fall, explores the relationship her own southern ancestors had with their house slaves, white neighbors, and with their personal efforts to protect and defend their way of life in South Carolina while still maintaining their humanity.
Robinson’s presentation on October 29 at the Mattapoisett Public Library, part of the Purrington Lecture Series, touched on her five-year journey to understand how a twig of her family tree headed by Francis Warrington Dawson held onto the tradition of owning slaves while at the same time, as she put it, “being a man of principles.” She said she was surprised to learn about Dawson because her ancestry included the author’s great-great-great-aunt Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Set in the 1800’s, we are told that Dawson emigrated from England during a time when the island nation was sending men across the Atlantic to help shore up the Confederate Army. The country’s economic interests, especially in the production of American cotton, were highly valued. Business partners were concerned that if slavery collapsed, so too would their fortunes.
Dawson founded the Charleston newspaper The News and Courier, and from that platform he wrote about the violence and brutality of slavery and criticized the belief system that placed Caucasians as the superior race. Robinson said she found “a man of principle” in the pages of Dawson’s newspaper and his daily journals.
“He stood up against injustice,” said Robinson. “He knew the south was afflicted with violence because slavery is based in violence.” His views set him against the majority of white citizens, his friends, and neighbors.
The novel begins at the end of the Civil War, a time when plantation owners and those whose fortunes depended on cheap enslaved labor faced losing everything. With their defeat, a visceral threat of violence pervaded Southern life, especially after the Union troops returned north.
“The more I read, the more I found topical themes,” said Robinson. Drawing a linear line from history to the present, Robinson said the modern phenomenon of American gun culture started in 1876 with the arming of former slaves by the Union to create militias. “Whites wouldn’t join militias because of the presence of black former slaves with guns.” Instead, she said, whites created their own militias.
“[The South] has 260 years of violence,” said Robinson. “It became a way of life.”
Reading from her novel, Robinson tells the story of one day when the people of a primarily black town were celebrating the Fourth of July. On the edge of town, they were being watched by armed white men. The tension in those passages was real.
Beyond the ever-present and persistent threat of violence, Robinson’s novel, she explained, discusses the complexity and duality that exists in the human mind.
“Everyone benefited from slavery,” she said. Even those who didn’t own slaves benefited from their labor, she said.
Religion, Robinson said, also played a role in how seemingly “decent white folks” could engage in slavery. She pointed to Biblical passages that spoke to the enslaving of people as an acceptable practice, what Southern whites eagerly interpreted as permission to enslave one race for the betterment of another.
“If you protested against the Bible, that was blasphemy,” said Robinson. “They were left with being good stewards of the people they owned,” she concluded.
Robinson considers her ancestors as kind and generous people, they too owned slaves, she said. She spoke of their benevolence in one breath, while in the next the fact that they owned human beings. From that context comes the ambivalence of finding oneself defending family in spite of their otherwise unacceptable behavior in history.
“Everyone has deep connections to ancestors,” said Robinson, “[a] loyalty to family… I had decent family, but they were complicit.”
The author had a treasure trove of material to wade through and said that she had not set out to write about slavery, but that is where her years of research led her. She read passages from her novel in a voice that added emotion to words that are already inherently powerful. Robinson is a writer whose descriptive text is painted in layers inside the mind of the reader, resulting in strong images and a deep immersion into the story at hand.
Robinson held back, as any author would, on divulging too much of the plot, and revealed nothing of the ending that gave rise to the book’s title (hint: Dawson’s Fallis not a place). As any good storyteller is wont to do, she left her audience with a thirst to know more. At the end of the presentation, half of those in attendance lined up to buy the book.
To learn more about Roxana Robinson you may visit www.roxanarobinson.com.
By Marilou Newell