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The Fall of Rome

The Fall of Rome

A Novel

  • reading group guide
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.
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  • Scribner | 
  • 224 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743227216 | 
  • January 2003
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Roman Way

The Chelsea School is in the middle of a field so lush and vivid as to make the eyes water and shine with its light. There's grass everywhere, acres and acres of it, green and falling away, rolling. Up on the hill, a grand red barn sits, incongruous, bright, the biggest in three counties. Black cows dot the hillside. Sometimes you can see boys in orange down jackets walking among them, slapping the rumps of the cows to get them to shift and calling to each other in raucous, sarcastic voices. But the barn serves no real purpose here. It was built by the school's founder in the belief that manual labor in the open... see more

Reading Group Guide

The Fall of Rome
Discussion Points
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 t see more

About the Author

Martha Southgate
Photo Credit: Amy Peck

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