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From Barnes & NobleThree Centuries of the Good Life
For George Dawson, life is certainly long. And thanks to his resolute optimism, life is certainly good. Born in the 19th century, Dawson is greeting the 21st with characteristic vigor and enthusiasm, more so since he just learned how to read. This moving autobiography ranges from Dawson's Texas childhood through his first Adult Basic Education class at the age of 98, and the many adventures between. As revealed in Life Is So Good, the 101-year-old Dawson is humble, sincere, and downright engaging, with much to look back on—and much to look forward to.
Dawson was born in 1898, shortly after the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson legitimized Jim Crow segregation. The realities of race are driven home early for Dawson, with the lynching of a childhood friend and the black community's sense of helplessness in the face of white mobs. Drawing from his family's recent history (recent for him, anyway), he tells of his grandfather dying as a soldier for the Union Army. And with amazing clarity, he remembers tales of Great Grandma Sylvie's and Grandma Charity's triumphant spirits as they marched off a Mississippi plantation to claim freedom in Texas.
As the first of five children, Dawson quickly assumes a tremendous amount of responsibility—taking on chores and helping to provide for his younger siblings. At 12, he departs his nurturing home to work on a white family's farm. Even then, he confronts life's challenges—proving to his father that he is willing and able to assist the family financially, even if it means leaving familiar comforts for the uncertainty of life elsewhere.
As continually revealed in Life Is So Good, Dawson's ageless optimism never lessens in the face of discrimination or adversity. Although relegated to sit in the "colored sections" of trains and restaurants and ordered to enter through the back doors of employers' houses, he maintains his pride. And, at times, he courageously defies the prejudicial norms of society. When an employer places his food alongside her dog's meals, he not only refuses to eat but emphatically tells her, "I don't eat with dogs. I eat with people. I am a human being."
Dawson's tireless spirit motivates him to value what he has, despite obvious societal inequities. Life's simple pleasures are treasured: a first train ride with the "rolling motion and the clacking sound on the track"; the surprise and joy of seeing an airplane; the momentous experience of driving a Model T, with its black, shiny body and solid rubber tires.
Dawson's sojourns across North America provide many memorable vignettes. While searching for work, he discovers a world bursting with possibilities—from the Cajun and French spoken on the streets of New Orleans to the music heard in the city's nightclubs. Caught in the rapture of the Big Easy, he finds his first girlfriend. Moving along, Dawson discovers that in Cincinnati "colored and white could go into the same stores." And in Canada, he sees beautiful snow canyons. But the cold and wet persuade him to head back to Texas.
Even when Dawson travels beyond his hometown, his inability to read keeps him, in many ways, "on the outside of things." Yet, through word of mouth, he hears the news of the day: Bonnie and Clyde's notorious exploits, JFK's assassination, Jackie Robinson's transcendent play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. "It didn't matter if they lived in Chicago, St. Louis, or Philadelphia. When Jackie came to the plate, colored folk everywhere were rooting for him to get a hit."
A window into the entire 20th century, Life Is So Good is a reflective look at a humble man who has lived an understated yet fascinating life. More than 100 years later, Dawson's father's profound influence is readily apparent, shaping his behavior and outlook. And Dawson's affection for his own family is evident; from his long-grown children to the four wives he has outlived, each draws the most loving praise. Of course, he still has one eye on the future. "People always ask me if I will ever get married again. I might. I might. There's lots of women that would marry me. That's because I treats them right and am honest. I have never been unfaithful."
Dawson's trademark optimism, stemming from his father's rule, dominates his story. "Life is good. And I do believe it's getting better." Life has continued to improve for Dawson, as evidenced by his learning to read at age 98. George Dawson proves that a fulfilled life is achievable, even in the face of obstacles. His convincing testimony will warm hearts and motivate spirits. And, as shown by his enduring example, life is, indeed, so good.
Glenda Johnson is a frequent contributor to the Africana section at Barnes & Noble.com.