Picador, 2020 (2020)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book
Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle
n the novel
, Roxana Robinson has used actual documents written by and about her great-grandparents (Sarah Morgan Dawson and Francis Warrington Dawson) to flesh out the story of their lives in the 1800's.
rancis, better known as
, was born in 1840 in London, England, in a family with a different name and little money. Then named Austin Reeks, he received a gentleman's education thanks to his wealthy Aunt Dawson, who was tricked into changing her will during her last illness. She had promised to leave everything to Austin, but instead a cousin of her husband benefited, and Austin, educated to be a gentleman, was left without money or prospects for employment.
hen he was nineteen, he announced to his family that he was going to go to America and join the Confederate Navy. He was attracted to that side of the Civil War because they were the underdogs, but he had to change his name to keep from embarrassing his family. Although he had to start the voyage on
as a common seaman because he was English, he proved to be so hard working and talented that he was promoted. After becoming a citizen, he fought with the Confederate Navy and Army until the end of the war.
arah Morgan was the youngest girl born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to a large family, with five brothers and three sisters. In 1861 when she was nineteen, both her brother Hal and her father died, and in 1864 two other brothers died. Sarah and her mother lived with her oldest brother in Baton Rouge until they moved to South Carolina to help nurse her youngest brother Jem. It was while she was living with Jem that Sarah met and married Frank.
arah and Frank set up their household in Charleston, where Frank started, wrote for, and continued to publish
The News and Courier
, during the years of the Reconstruction in the South. Frank frequently wrote editorials and articles that infuriated white people in Charleston, which meant that he would lose subscribers periodically. However they always returned because his news was well-written and researched. He had talented reporters working for him, but once a competing newspaper started publishing in Charleston, he lost both readers and reporters to the new, less controversial paper.
he Dawsons' story is a fascinating study of what South Carolina society was like during Reconstruction. Robinson includes some of Sarah and Frank's writing, as well as accounts written by others, and I learned a lot about that period that I didn't know and hadn't understood before. Although difficult to read in places, the book gave me a much better understanding of why Southerners were able to keep African-Americans from voting and advancing educationally and socially for so many years. Robinson brings it all together in a well-written and researched novel.
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