Confronting the Past

All is not well in the elite halls of Blackburne.

Algonquin Books, $26.95

For 10 years, Christopher Swann worked on a novel never destined to see a bookshelf. It wasn’t just that the plot was convoluted—involving the Irish Republican Army descending on coastal Georgia—but that the whole story seemed unbelievable. After reading one of the later drafts, his wife Kathy asked why he wasn’t writing about a subject he actually knew something about. 

What he knew was boarding school life. As a teen, Swann had attended all-boys Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, and for the past two decades he had been a teacher at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta. Starting over, he wrote a new novel set in a fictional, all-boys boarding school named Blackburne where the grounds are called “the Lawn” and freshmen are “third formers.” The elite prep school’s colonial brick buildings and sprawling campus are located in the Shenandoah Valley foothills, the same general region where he’d gone to school. 

“I took all the best parts of Woodberry and put them in the book,” Swann says, “and all the bad parts of Blackburne I made up.”

The “bad parts” occur early in Shadow of the Lions, Swann’s debut novel. One student, Matthias Glass, breaks the honor code by cheating. Shortly after Glass confesses his transgression to his roommate, the roommate vanishes forever. Being an angst-ridden teen, Glass can’t help but feel he was the cause of the disappearance, and the guilt of it follows him into adulthood like a long, cold shadow.

Like Swann, Glass becomes an author. Unlike Swann, a lifelong teacher who loves his job, Glass falls into teaching after his literary muse dries up. The story is told from Glass’ point of view, early chapters alternating between his time as a young student and his first year of teaching. Glass has tried ignoring his feelings about his roommate’s disappearance, but when he comes back to Blackburne and sees the stone lions that stand at the school’s entrance, the incident rises to the forefront of his thoughts. A body was never discovered nor was any ransom ever asked of the rich family—either would have at least provided some closure. When a former classmate reveals a new piece of information—the missing student lied about where he’d been his last night on campus—Glass decides to dig a little deeper. Enlisting the help of the embittered former deputy who had been in charge of the case, he discovers that someone had intentionally derailed the investigation. Glass comes to understand there is much more to the story than his own guilt and misguided notions.

Once Glass realizes there is a real mystery at hand, surprises spring from hidden corners, including drugs, the resurfacing of an old flame, and confrontations with both law enforcement and gun-toting villains. 

Having lived much of the same life as the protagonist, Swann didn’t need to conduct much research to write this novel. But when seedier elements came into it, he sought help to lend veracity to the story. “I have a coworker whose husband is a defense lawyer here in Atlanta,” Swann says. “I went to her and said, ‘I need to talk to David about drug laws and about bail.’ The stunned look on her face was priceless. ‘No, no,’ I said. ‘It’s research for my book.’”

In a thrilling climax, Swann ties up everything by explaining what really happened to the missing student. So much of Glass’ guilt had been baseless worry. And that is a key component to this story—the way we all view other people’s actions and skew them to fit our own perspective. Seen through the prism of our personal dramas, it’s easy to forget that other people have their own dilemmas, most of which have nothing at all to do with us.

“I wanted Shadow of the Lions to have a sense of mystery and intrigue,” says Swann, “as well as a sense of this past that’s weighing on Glass, looming over him, following him. The possibility of redemption is there, trying to do something good in the world to atone for something bad. … But I also like stories with characters that make mistakes.”

While the young Glass does indeed draw a mistaken conclusion that adversely affects his life, he is able to redeem himself in a second go-around at the same institution. And though it might be unintentional, that too is the story of Swann’s literary life. He’s buried the bones of his IRA-in-Georgia novel—“That book is underneath the bed,” he says, “and it’s going to stay there”—but Shadow of the Lions does everything that first novel couldn’t. This tale of boarding-school life is captivating thanks to the loving way Swann ushers the reader into the lives of this close-knit clan of boys, something he’s lived and now shares with outsiders like a whispered secret revealing the hidden truth within us all. 

This article originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.

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