A Review of Dawn Major’s The Bystanders
by Jon Sokol
The bystander effect is a theory describing a syndrome where normally decent people display apathy toward an injustice being perpetrated in front of them, especially in the presence of other people. Their thinking is that surely someone will do something. The unfortunate result is that all too often no one does anything to help the victim. In Dawn Major’s debut novel, The Bystanders, this terrifyingly common condition is explored as she tells the story of a dysfunctional family who moves from Los Angeles to the small rural town of Lawrenceton, Missouri.
The novel, written as a linked narrative from several different points of view, centers around Shannon, a teenaged valley girl, and her mother Wendy, who is married to Dale Samples, a good-looking but sadistic bully seemingly determined to make miserable the lives of his wife and stepdaughter.
The first chapter, told in the point of view of Eddy, a twelve-year-old local kid, begins with him witnessing the Samples having a disturbing domestic dispute at a gas station. Eddy (immediately smitten with Shannon who is dressed like an 80s-era MTV VJ) realizes that Wendy and Shannon need help as they are being verbally and physically abused by Dale and is disgusted that he is helpless in the situation, not to mention that none of the adults are willing to step in to stop the situation as they watch the horror unfold. He is especially appalled at his father’s lack of action, noting that “they shared a secret cowardice in their DNA.” The story then follows Eddy’s adolescent pursuit of Shannon’s attention, which is constantly thwarted either by Shannon’s unwillingness to allow him to get close to her or, much more disturbing, by Dale’s relentless intimidation and bullying.
The story then shifts to Shannon’s point of view as she navigates through her teenage years as the new girl at a strict Catholic school in a small, ultraconservative town made worse by her near-poverty living conditions and troubling family life as Dale, the quintessential Southern grit antagonist, makes her life a living hell. At one point she laments: “Not only were we outsiders with our outside ways, but we were white trash in the middle of a town that was settled in 17-something and something. We’re talking about deep-deep-deep-rooted traditions. And that made us stand out like a bonfire in Antarctica.”
Later chapters focus more on Wendy, Shannon’s adorably eccentric mother with hard-earned survival instincts. Her portrayal is particularly fascinating in its realism. She is an intelligent and loving parent and seems to effortlessly come across as “the cool mom” despite Shannon’s insistence that she stop trying to act as such. Wendy shows that she is particularly adept at solving bullying situations aimed at Shannon including mean-girls and even one exceptionally callous teacher. However, this expertise is sorely lacking when it comes to the foremost tyrant, her husband Dale.
Eventually, Wendy comes to loathe her pitiful role as chief bystander to Dale’s focused abuse towards both her and her daughter as his paranoid, obsessive, and violent behavior becomes increasingly more unhinged. Finally fed up with his vile manipulations and no longer willing to subject her daughter to a life of constant mistreatment, Wendy decides to leave her husband only to have her plans thwarted by her tormentor.
Then, forced to watch her husband brutally humiliate and ostensibly murder an innocent Samaritan who Dale irrationally assumes is her lover, Wendy grapples with making a potentially lethal decision to take action and no longer be the spectator – the onlooker who waits in fear for someone else to right the wrongs being perpetrated. By not trying to finally stop the injustices, will she be (and has she been) just as guilty as the maniac committing them?
If she remained in her car, would she be an innocent bystander or a victim? Or would everyone at the hospital, or the entire town say she brought this on herself? [That] she didn’t even try to help the poor man…the verdict was in. Sentenced for being afraid, for being a bystander.”
The story crescendos with an intense face-off between fight or flight instincts, as the reader is left on the sidelines – a helpless bystander – watching as the events unfold and having no idea how the battle will end.
Major strikes a good balance in this novel by weaving together multiple characters’ points of view and how these people are forced to either act or sit by and watch as Dale upends the lives of all those who are near him. His character harkens back to the pure evilness found in those of some of the masters of grit lit, including Harry Crews and Dorothy Allison. The rural town of Lawrenceton plays an important role in the novel and Major expertly homes in on the sense of place and how setting can become a significant character in the narrative. Over the course of each well-written scene, Major invites the reader to look within and ask: Well, what would you do? What are you in fact doing about it in your life? Are you going just to be a bystander?
Jon Sokol is a writer, forester, traveler, and typewriter enthusiast. He lives in Northeast Georgia with his wife, Karen. He mostly writes fiction often drifting toward southern gothic and his fascination with all things peculiar. Jon’s short stories, essays, and book reviews have appeared in the James Dickey Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Southern Literary Review, Well Read Magazine, Gutwrench Journal, Reckon Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and other journals and anthologies. In 2021, he graduated from Reinhardt University with an MFA in Creative Writing. Jon can be found online at www.jonsokol.com and @JonSokolWriter on Twitter.