LIFE IS SO GOOD By George Dawson and Richard Glaubman Random House 288 pp., $23
A story like this only comes around every 100 years. Or let's say, every 102 years, but who's counting? Certainly not George Dawson, the narrator of this remarkable autobiography.
Having walked in three centuries now, Dawson is a living Time-Life series on American history, but he knows there's still more to learn. "I'm pretty busy with school these days," the 102-year-old student says.
Dawson was 98, living alone in a ghetto of south Dallas, when he heard about a literacy program for adults. Not knowing how to read hadn't kept him from sending his seven children to college, but it had held back his career at the dairy before he retired in 1963.
"I always had a dream that I would learn how to read," Dawson says in "Life Is So Good." "There was nothing I couldn't do, and my mind was as good as anyone's. All my life, I had been just too busy working to go to school."
So off he went - early every day - to the Lincoln Instructional Center, where he became such an inspiration to others that enrollment quickly doubled.
When Richard Glaubman, a Seattle grade-school teacher, read about this hard-working student in a newspaper article, the two of them struck up a friendship. Glaubman hoped to write a children's book about Dawson, but the story kept growing bigger.
On vacations and special leaves, Glaubman returned again and again to talk with Dawson, eventually moving in to a spare room full of fishing equipment in the old man's house.
Together the two of them have created the feel-good story of the year.
But don't roll your eyes at the rosy title. "Life Is So Good" opens with a scene of blinding cruelty. Ten-year-old Dawson is picking out peppermint candy at the general store when one of his teenage buddies is suddenly accused of raping a white woman. Dawson and his dad watch as the sheriff helps a band of hooligans hang the young man from a nearby tree.
"Some cheers and laughter followed as if the spectators was at a picnic," Dawson says. "When they did a lynching, they made us leave the body hanging, to put a terror in the colored folk."
Riding home in silence, his father finally says, "Some of those white folks was mean and nasty. Some were just scared. It doesn't matter. You have no right to judge another human being. Don't you ever forget."
"I didn't know it then," Dawson says, "but his words set the direction my life would take even till this day."
Dawson's bold conclusion that "life is so good" seems more and more remarkable in light of the unending labor, threats, and hardships he describes. This is a story of the American Dream that makes so many other versions look like fantasies. At the age of four, he started combing cotton with his ex-slave grandmothers.
"I know you're tired," Grandma Charity tells him one day, "but President Lincoln, he didn't free us to be lazy and no good. He freed us to work hard and improve ourselves."
Too poor to send George to the new school for colored children, his family eventually couldn't even afford to keep him. At the age of 12, he went off to live and work on a distant farm so he could send $1.50 home every week. "Son, not everybody be as fortunate as we are," his father tells him. "That's a good thing to remember."
Over the next decades, George takes to the rails - sometimes paying, sometimes hopping. He travels everywhere, sees snow in Canada, racial equality in Mexico, and finally a degree of dignity in America. He spots an airplane, tastes an orange, and even drives a car. ("Most people agreed as to how they was close to useless, but I still liked them anyway.")
Dawson's kind and witty attitude is perhaps as valuable as his record of American history, a history largely in the shadows of the "important" events that shook white America.
"I am a witness to the truth," he tells his ghostwriter, Glaubman. "That's why I am still here. I can't let the truth die with me. That's why you're here: to help me get the true story down, before it's my time."
This truth, though, goes far deeper than the history he describes. It's rooted in his rugged self-reliance, his determination to control his attitude, no matter what anyone else does to him. "You don't want to waste life," he says, "not even a minute of it."
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com
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