The memoir of George Dawson, who learned to read when he was 98, places his life in the context of the entire 20th century in this inspiring, yet ultimately blighted, biography. Dawson begins his story with an emotional bang: his account of witnessing the lynching of a young African-American man falsely accused of rape. America's racial caste system and his illiteracy emerge as the two biggest obstacles in Dawson's life, but a full view of the man overcoming the obstacles remains oddly hidden. Travels to Ohio, Canada, and Mexico reveal little beyond Dawson's restlessness, since nothing much happens to him during these wanderings. Similarly, the diverse activities he finds himself engaging in—bootlegging in St. Louis, breaking horses, attending cockfights—never really advance the reader's understanding of the man. He calls himself a "ladies' man" and hints at a score of exciting stories, but then describes only his decorous marriage. Despite the personal nature of this memoir, Dawson remains a strangely aloof figure, never quite inviting the reader to enter his world. In contrast to Dawson's diffidence, however, Glaubman's overbearing presence, as he repeatedly parades himself out to converse with Dawson, stifles any momentum the memoir might develop. Almost every chapter begins with Glaubman presenting Dawson with a newspaper clipping or historical fact and asking him to comment on it, despite the fact that Dawson often does not remember or never knew about the event in question. Exasperated readers may wonder whether Dawson's life and his accomplishments, his passion for learning despite daunting obstacles, is the tale at hand, or whether the real issue is his recollections of Archduke Ferdinand. Dawson's achievements are impressive and potentially exalting, but the gee-whiz nature of the tale degrades it to the status of yet another bowl of chicken soup for the soul, with a narrative frame as clunky as an old bone.
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