ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Life is So Good

Heather Allen explores the lessons of George Dawson's Life is So Good.

At my book club we often spend our time drinking wine and talking about kids. So when, at the last gathering, we spent most of the evening discussing our book —and everyone in the room had actually finished it — I knew we had something special that needed to be shared in wider circles.

Life is So Good, by George Dawson, is the true story of one man’s extraordinary journey through the 20th Century and how he learned to read at age 98. It’s also a rare chance to hear so much history through the lens of someone who has a near photographic memory.

Born in 1898, George started pulling cotton with his grandmother when he was only four years old. As he worked, he listened to his grandmother and aunt tell stories about working as slaves, and of the day they saw slavery abolished.

At age 10, George witnessed the lynching of a teenage friend, who was falsely accused of impregnating a young white girl in Marshall, Texas. At 12, George was already working dawn ‘til dusk, living in a shack out behind a white family’s farmhouse.

Although suited to adults and youth alike, I couldn’t entice my kids to pick up Life is So Good on their own. I’ve been reading a chapter a night to them instead. They’re hooked, even though they quickly figured out that I wanted them to see that their lives weren’t quite so hard as they think.

George describes growing up in a house with 18 kids, riding the rails and sleeping in hobo encampments, working on the levees of the Mississippi River as well as fishing for catfish, breaking horses and playing baseball in rough fields where the game ended with the fans sharing a picnic supper.

George was bright but because his family needed him to work on the farm, he never got a chance to go to school. Not being able to read created large and small difficulties his entire life — he couldn’t read stories about his hero Jackie Robinson, couldn’t order from a menu at restaurants, and had to use tricks on the job to fool people into thinking he could read.

But deciding to learn to read at such a late age drew many new students into his adult education classes. If a 100-year-old man could do it, people thought that it probably wasn’t too late for them. He was also a walking history text. One day when the class was discussing the assassination of a president, George didn’t initially realize they were talking about Kennedy. He thought they were discussing the event his family talked about at the dinner table — the assassination of James Garfield in 1881.

As he grew older, many people stopped in to talk to George and ask him why he lived for so long. George came to believe that he was meant to describe the history of the United States that wasn’t told in newspapers or in textbooks. He accomplished that with Life is So Good. George died shortly after its completion at the age of 103.

Heather Allen is a book reviewer living in Penticton