The Fall of Rome
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Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Scribner (January 1, 2002)
Reviewed by Thumper, AALBC.com
The Fall of Rome is the first adult novel by Coretta Scott King winner Martha Southgate. Southgate through the narrative of three people told a story that stripped the characters of sentimentality and their facades in order to reveal a tale of things lost, what should have been but couldn't, what could have been but isn't. The Fall of Rome is a beautiful book. The Fall of Rome was the first book that I read by Martha Southgate, please rest assured; it will not be my last.
Jerome Washington is an AA Latin teacher, who for the past 15 years taught at the prestigious, exclusive all-boy high school, Chelsea, in Connecticut. Jerome’s view of race, excellence, and his love of Roman culture and the drive in which he strives to live by Roman philosophy comes to a head when Rashid Bryson, a 14 year old AA boy is enrolled in his Latin class. Along with the arrival of Jana Hansen, a middle age, divorced white woman who becomes a teacher at Chelsea, Jerome's neat and orderly world will turn upside down. The three, unwittingly, form a triangle that will bring the shatter pieces of their individual lives together, though not necessarily happily together.
As my young cousin, Miss Kitty, would say, Jerome has issues. Jerome’s search for perfection, and belief that he found it in Roman culture is not entirely unfamiliar to me, well the fascination with Roman culture is. Jerome’s ’the white man's ice is colder’ mentality is indeed prevalent among many AA today. Jerome's strive for excellence; his difficulty with race (Jerome identifies himself as a ’Negro’), his self-hatred is hard-hitting for Jerome’s entire identity, and lifestyle is predicated on how he is perceived, by white folk, as a black man. The words to Nina Simone's To Be Young, Gifted, and Black played constantly in the back of my mind when the focus of the story would feature Jerome. In Jerome, Southgate expertly created a wonderfully complex character that slowly begins to come undone before my eyes.
Jana Hansen, I initially thought, unfairly, here we go again with the white woman who's simply fascinated with black men. I was cynical about Jana. In the first chapters of the book, I thought, somebody contact Oprah, we got a white-woman-How-I-Got-Over story for her book club. Fortunately, I kept reading and my cynicism dissolved. Jana evolved as a solid character, jumping her own hurdles as she dealt with her ex-husband's new marriage and her daughter’s, what Jana hopes is an experiment, sexual lifestyle. Jana is a woman who's is attempting to find her place in a life she once knew. *smile*
Southgate's portrayal of Rashid is equally as fascinating. The capture of Rashid's struggle to belong, finding a place in the world that is a good fit, a place to call home is on target. Rashid has to contend with racism on a scale that isn't frequently discussed, subtle racism. Southgate didn't depict Rashid as ’cutesy’ or as a stereotypical All-American teenager. Rashid doesn't have all of the answers; his mentality, at times, is childish when faced with difficult situations but it's real, understandable and recognizable as a 14 year-old boy. Rashid is on the threshold of manhood and Southgate illustrated it well.
Southgate pulled these three characters, seemingly separate and uncomplimentary threads together and weaved a fluid, lyrical tale of pain, redemption and finding what was once lost, a feat that I found impressive and captivating. Southgate's style is grace, an intrusive grace that is hypnotic as she delicately, effortlessly, peel away the layers of the three main characters, not as an onion, but as an apple, leaving the formerly hidden core with the hard dark seeds and their place of rest exposed at the mercy of its surrounding.
The Fall of Rome grabbed my heart and gave it slight squeeze. I couldn't put the book down. The couple of days it took me to read this book, I treated sleep in the same manner as I would listening to an old uncle tell the same long winded story that I've heard for the past thirty years. I had to finish this book. I had to stay under the spell that Southgate weaved. The Fall of Rome is a beautiful, full-bodied novel.