The Fall of Rome
by Martha Southgate
Published by Scribner
223 pages, 2002
Buy it online
The Color of Change
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
A posh all-boys prep school in rural Connecticut seems an unlikely setting for a novel that deals cuttingly with issues of class, race and integration. However, author Martha Southgate's delicate yet pointed touch makes The Fall of Rome, her second novel, entirely successful.
At the Chelsea School we meet Latin instructor Jerome Washington -- not-so-affectionately nicknamed "Wooden Washington" by the decades of students he's taught there. A child of the South, Jerome has been teaching at Chelsea since the 1970s, proud of the place he has won for himself there, "... a quiet, dark space among all the bright, pale faces..." asking quarter from no one, he hopes that his presence at the school "stands as a testament to the notion that we are not all cut from the same cloth, that individual effort and rigor will ultimately win out over all."
Jerome has buried his past: the overbearing sharecropper father, the brother killed years ago while robbing a store and to a certain degree even the mother who taught him what he needed to get by, but not, it would seem, how to thrive.
When a new student arrives at the beginning of the new term, he seems to have been manufactured to set Jerome's teeth on edge. From Jerome's perspective, even the boy's name is irritating: "Looking down the class enrollment list, I saw that he had one of those rather absurd African-inspired names. Rashid. That was it. Rashid Bryson."
What Jerome doesn't realize to begin with is that he and Rashid share a common tragedy: the young man's brother, Kofi, was killed the year before in a senseless and violent act. Though in this latter case, the young man was the victim, not the aggressor.
Rashid is a rather beautiful young hero on which to hinge Southgate's tale. His parents are loving, but not affluent and the loss of their elder son has rendered them incapable of providing for the emotional needs of their younger son. It's while going through his dead brother's things that Rashid finds a brochure for the Chelsea School and he glimpses a possibility:
Maybe if he left. Maybe if he went some place pure and single-minded. No girls to distract him. Nobody who knew about Kofi, about how alone he was now. Someplace where he had no history, just the day in the front of him. Maybe then his mind would clear. Maybe then he could breathe again.
Though he is just 14, Rashid fills out the necessary applications, passes the necessary tests and, with minimal help from his grief-stricken parents, fills in the required financial forms. When he is accepted, "Rashid's primary emotion was relief. Scared as he was to go, it had to be better than home."
The third strong voice in The Fall of Rome is that of Jana Hansen, a new teacher at the Chelsea School, who has been teaching in the Cleveland public school system until recently, where she was "always the only white woman in the room. So Chelsea was weird right from the start. The room seemed too bright. I was comforted by the sight of two black boys near the back." Jana has come to Chelsea to leave her old life far behind. Her husband has left her for a much younger woman and, now divorced, Jana felt the need for a change. "I was hoping that a little of the neatness and prosperity and calm of the place would rub off on me," she says of Chelsea.
As we delve deeper, we find that Jana has a tragedy of her own to forget: a favored student, one she felt she had really reached, ended up in jail. "I'm tired of fighting the tide," she says. And happy to have enough chalk.
The story is told in three voices: sometimes Jerome narrates, sometimes Jana does. Rashid's sections are told from his perspective but not in his voice. Southgate's skill is such that we don't need to be told if it's Jerome or Jana speaking: their voices are distinct enough that we can tell at a glance. Jerome is stiff and proper: unapproachable. Jana is warm and accessible. And it was likely a good call not to attempt Rashid's portion of the story in his own voice: the mind of the adolescent male is too turbulent a place for it to provide any type of reliable narration.
It is, however, with the interweaving of the thoughts and voices that Southgate achieves her greatest magic, because what I see from inside my head will be quite different from what you experience across the room. These differences of position -- partly based on background and conditioning -- provide a large portion of the conflict in The Fall of Rome.
And, despite the idyllic surroundings, there is conflict. Rashid must fit into a world so different from his own he may as well be on another planet. Jerome must put to rest demons he doesn't even know he has. And Jana provides safety for one of them and proves to be a catalyst of change for the other.
Southgate is an elegant, economical writer and The Fall of Rome is testimony to a growing talent well worth watching. A graduate of Smith College (not coincidentally Jana's alma mater), Southgate's first novel was the award-winning Another Way to Dance | February 2002
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe Magazine.