A newspaper editor is at odds with both his city and his next-door neighbor in early Jim Crow–era South Carolina.
Robinson (Sparta, 2013, etc.) mines the story of her great-grandparents for this bracing historical novel, using actual diary entries, letters, and newspaper articles. But though the story is set mainly in the 1880s, its themes are up-to-the-minute; Robinson uses lynchings, duels, and sexual assaults to shed light on populism and toxic masculinity. Frank Dawson is the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, which has agitated against the region’s racist violence since Reconstruction. (A well-turned scene depicts a bloody standoff between black soldiers and resentful whites in 1876 that led to a massacre.) Frank’s anti-lynching stance loses him readers to a rival paper. He’s facing troubles on the homefront as well. Frank’s wife, Sarah, a child of the New Orleans gentry that’s fallen victim to poverty and the Civil War, is losing her grip on her young maid and governess, Hélène, who's pursuing a disastrous relationship with the corrupt doctor next door, Thomas McDow, a man scheming to have his wife and father-in-law killed. Such plotlines could easily regress into a lurid, exploitative tale (and, perhaps inevitably, McDow never quite shakes a Snidely Whiplash demeanor), but Robinson handles the material judiciously, using the Dawsons’ lives as points in a larger map of civic dysfunction. (She integrates contemporary news stories of murders between chapters to evoke a wider atmosphere of unease.) Robinson suggests that bigotry has trickle-down effects in terms of race, gender, and everyday conduct. All this converges in a climax that's surprising but, given Robinson’s careful integration of history and imagination, feels inevitable.
A stylish and contemplative historical novel, considerate of facts but not burdened by them.