Dawn’s Early Light by Elswyth Thane was a huge favorite of my history loving heart when I was a kid. I found it on Amazon Kindle not too long ago and was thrilled to finally be able to revisit this old friend. Of course I purchased it immediately, even if I was a tad concerned about whether or not I should. So often childhood favorites often need to be fondly remembered, but left in the past. Even so, I was kind of shocked by how much of it was problematic – even with it having been originally published in 1943.
First, let’s talk about the good. I don’t know this for certain, but my working theory is that someone (perhaps the author herself) challenged Elswyth Thane to write a novel that made American History appealing and accessible, and she certainly succeeded with that. Julian and Tibby, the protagonists in Dawn’s Early Light, are constantly brushing up against real historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox. The way these fictional characters and historical people of note are woven into the story of the birth of our nation is why I fell in love with this novel. It makes them seem human in a way that our textbooks in school do not.
All of that leads us directly to the bad, I’m afraid. Even making allowances for when Dawn’s Early Light was published (1943), it is just FILLED with bad stuff. It really breaks my heart a little to not be able to recommend it to young readers. It led directly to my love for history and my major in college. But between the happy slaves, the inappropriate relationship between Julian and Tibby (She was a child of ten when they met, and he her teacher. They become engaged to be married by the end of the book.), the hero worship of slave owners even if they are our founding fathers, relational cheating between secondary characters, there are problematic elements at just about every level of the book. I’d be worried that something would get missed during the necessary conversation about why these things are not okay, and that it could give a false impression about whether or not something is normal or fine. Seriously. The false narrative of the South was very much on display here, and we don’t need to take those steps back.
There are additional books in what is known as The Williamsburg Series, one for many of the wars or conflicts that the United States was involved in right up to the early days of World War II. They all have similar issues, although maybe not to the same extent as Dawn’s Early Light, the first entry in the Series. If you do decide to have your kids read them, definitely read them yourself first so you have a detailed idea about what will need additional discussion.