Synopses & Reviews
Latin instructor Jerome Washington is a man out of place. The lone African-American teacher at the Chelsea School, an elite all-boys boarding school in Connecticut, he has spent nearly two decades trying not to appear too "racial." So he is unnerved when Rashid Bryson, a promising black inner-city student who is new to the school, seeks Washington as a potential ally against Chelsea's citadel of white privilege. Preferring not to align himself with Bryson, Washington rejects the boy's friendship. Surprised and dismayed by Washington's response, Bryson turns instead to Jana Hansen, a middle-aged white divorcée who is also new to the school -- and who has her own reasons for becoming involved in the lives of both Bryson and Washington.
Southgate makes her debut as a writer to watch in this compelling, provocative tale of how race and class ensnare Hansen, Washington, and Bryson as they journey toward an inevitable and ultimately tragic confrontation.
Michael Pakenham Baltimore Sun A tour de force of what might be called post-Movement race realities in the United States.
The New Yorker [Southgate] remains true to the enigma of her hero, and her rendering of his voice -- pensive, rueful, and entirely devoid of self-pity -- is convincing.
Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post Southgate has given us a genuinely tragic figure...a man brought down by his own tragic flaw, and thus a man who has much to teach us that far transcends race.
The New Yorker
[Southgate] remains true to the enigma of her hero, and her rendering of his voice -- pensive, rueful, and entirely devoid of self-pity -- is convincing.
Liza Featherstone Newsday Beautifully executed....[The Fall of Rome] deserves to be widely read.
About the Author
Martha Southgate is a graduate of Smith College, with an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. She has had fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was books editor at Essence and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, and Rosie, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is at work on her next novel. You can visit her Web site at www.marthasouthgate.com
Reading Group Guide
The Fall of Rome
1. Why does the author choose to switch points of view? How does seeing the story play out through three distinctly different vantages help in your understanding of the underlying themes and tensions therein?
2. What is the significance of the quotes at the beginning of the novel? How do they help inform your reading?
3.Nothing affects the choices, thoughts, and actions of these characters more than the lens through which they perceive the world. At times it seems as if Jerome, Rashid, and Jana often view those surrounding them not as unique, individual beings, but as hybrids of people and places that they have encountered before. Do you agree or disagree that this is true?
4. Similarly, how much of one's connection with another person has to do with a shared past? Mr. Washington quotes Cicero early in the novel, saying, "Our character is not so much the product of race and heredity as of those circumstances by which nature forms our habits, by which we are nourished and live." Do you agree with this? Is this viewpoint inherently limiting in terms of human relationships, or just harshly realistic? What do you think the novel suggests?
5. At one point Jerome Washington ruminates on what he calls "great kindness and openness," stating, "well, those are not the only virtues. And they are, after all, the ones that cost us the most." What do you think he means by this? Are these virtues more dangerous to someone like Rashid than to the other boys at Chelsea? How so? Does the author agree with Washington's opinion?
6. The idea of control is a central theme in this story, and we watch as different characters teeter on the edge of chaos in terms of their bodies, minds, and their surroundings. In the end, what kind of statement do you think the author may be making about the Roman concept of a "controlled life," keeping in mind the disastrous consequences of Washington's rigidity.
7. How is running a metaphor for Rashid's life? For Mr. Washington's? What did you make of the scene in which Rashid beats Mr. Washington?
8. Discuss setting in this novel, paying particular attention to how the pristine Chelsea campus elicits seemingly disparate feelings for many of the main characters. How does the setting tie into larger themes of order and control and experience vs. heredity?
9. The Fall of Rome is a story about growing up, survival, and the coping mechanisms that young black men need to succeed. What are the different strategies that Rashid and Jerome Washington use to make themselves seen in a world that would prefer that they were invisible? Does the author make any judgments regarding whose way is more successful? What was your reaction when Mr. Washington said, referring to Rashid, "He didn't know that the only way to win them over was to concede"?
10. As one of the few black boys in the white, upper-class environment of Chelsea, Rashid bears the burden of being a kind of representative for his race. Look at the different ways that he reacts to this pressure and think about why his reactions might be different than those of a character like Gerald.
11. Discuss the parallels between the characters of Rashid and Mr. Washington, focusing on the traits that their families share -- especially their mothers. Think about how they both come to the Chelsea school to escape their history, but find it staring them in the face when they look upon each other. To what extent do you think the anger between them stems from a desire to reject their upbringings? Which character seems better able to handle this combination of past and future?
12. After his trip back to his family's home in Brooklyn, Rashid has an epiphany of sorts when he realizes "He was hated, but it wasn't his problem." What do you think he means by this, exactly? In what ways does this realization ultimately lead to the confrontation on the cross-country field?
13. Where do you envision Rashid in ten years? Do you think he will be a success story? Do you think his opinion of Mr. Washington may change over time?
A Note from the Author, Martha Southgate
The rolling hills and fields described in the opening pages of this novel are an accurate description of the campus of the northeastern Ohio prep school that I attended for four years (though it was not a boarding school). Everything else in The Fall of Rome, however, is fiction, my favorite way to write. I love making things up. The characters are not modeled on anyone I knew either then or now. My attendance at that school was a formative experience of my life and this book is an attempt to examine, through imagined characters and lives, some aspects of what that experience meant to me and what it might mean for others.
I'm in my forties. I think that people of my age and younger, the post-Civil Rights generation, face a world that is full of choices about what race means that someone of Jerome's age could not possibly imagine. I wanted, in this novel, to examine some of the ways such characters might clash as well as the ways they might come together around race and around values. These issues continue to interest me, and I imagine I'll always keep exploring them in my work.
Copyright © 2002 by Martha Southgate