A Conversation on the April Read of the month: “The Bystanders” by Dawn Major

Southern Literary Review congratulates Associate Editor Dawn Major on the publication of her debut novel, The Bystanders (Mooncove Press, 2023).

Dawn Major

SLR’s Editor Donna Meredith and Associate Editor Claire Matturro discuss Dawn Major’s novel, The Bystanders.


DM: The first chapter begins with the archetype of a stranger coming to town. In this case, the strangers are a dysfunctional family from California, the Samples. Twelve-year-old Eddy Bauman observes their arrival. He is particularly fascinated with Shannon, a teenage girl dressed more exotically than any girl he’s ever seen in his small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. Next Eddy hears this girl crying inside a gas station and then witnesses her mother and stepfather having an argument outside. The girl’s mother Wendy is also dressed in a way that marks her as an outsider—not like a mom at all. Eddy thinks someone should do something to help the women, but his father says what’s happening is none of their business. This is the story’s first example of bystanders.

CHM: Dawn Major does this delightful trick throughout the book, where for a moment she steps out of the action and makes droll comments on the characters and what is happening. These moments add humor and insight and are so well done as to enhance the story without becoming intrusive. For example, early on in the story as Shannon and her stepfather Dale and her mother are having a very public screaming fit, complete with throwing luggage about, Major writes the scene using this technique:

[Shannon’s mother] was tossing luggage and trash bags helter-skelter around the gas pumps. As soon as the woman heaved a bag out onto the pavement, the man picked up the same bag and hurled it back inside. She tossed a bag. He flung it back. Back and forth. Back and forth. A demented factory line where progress wasn’t the goal.

Donna Meredith

DM: That’s one of my favorite scenes. So cinematic, so full of action and dark humor. Wouldn’t you love to see the movie? I can imagine Eddy’s eyes widening as he watches all this.

One of the first things I noticed was the interesting way Dawn used point of view to craft a unique and outstanding story. After that first chapter from Eddy’s viewpoint, the next chapter shifts to Lena and Holda, elderly twins who live in an old house that once served as the St. Lawrence rectory. Then the chapter moves to the viewpoint of Anna, who has a schoolgirl crush on Eddy, who has a crush on Shannon. Through these characters, Dawn Major offers readers different reactions to the Samples family. But as the narrative in Chapter Three shifts back to Eddy, I realized the main character is actually the town of Lawrenceton.

The community itself evolves as the heart of the novel. And those California “invaders,” the Samples family, doesn’t fit in and Shannon knows this all too well:

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.

CHM: This intriguing book unfolds in some ways like a set of connected short stories, all of which work well to pull the readers into Lawrenceton. I agree with Donna that the town of Lawrenceton is the main character. Yet there are many complicated, intriguing characters, such as the main teens, Shannon and Eddy. Shannon and Eddy steal the show over and over again. With scenes so vivid and so full of the angst and drama and fun of youth, these two enliven the story and charm readers back into the world of adolescence.

Claire Matturro

Shannon and Eddy aren’t the only characters who light up this novel. In a less talented author, some of the other characters—like Lena and Holda, the spinster sisters Donna mentions—might not seem so remarkable, but Dawn creates these people with such a careful, authentic sense of who and what they are that the characters are radiant in all their quirky, complicated humanness.

DM: I loved Lena and Holda. They are not just bystanders. When they see Shannon is not accepted by the community, they undertake a risky move to help by assigning her a key role in a live nativity.  Unfortunately, their plans explode during Christmas mass, and they are forced to sit back and watch as bystanders a mess they blame themselves for creating. That’s when Father LeClair steps up and reminds everyone why they have gathered in the church in the first place. As he reads the liturgy, the sisters realize that nothing could make “Christmas any more perfect than it already was. With all its imperfections—soured eggnog, rock hard fruitcakes, foul-mouthed and harlotted virgins, spats between church members, and even with Lena and Holda’s failures, it couldn’t be any better.” I would love to see this scene in a movie. It not only has slapstick humor that would garner laughs, but also moments that pluck the heartstrings.

CHM: Absolutely. Town folks might not embrace Shannon, her beautiful but strange mother, and her handsome but dangerous stepfather. They might consider them trailer park trash, and might watch as bystanders at the opening fight at a gas station, yet when it all hits the fan, folks step up and help out.

Dawn Major does an exemplary job of capturing both droll humor and the importance of the live nativity scene to the church and the town. Shannon’s role as Mother Mary does not go as the priest and spinster twins expected. And wait till you read the scene about Shannon’s choice of Confirmation names where even after much head-butting with the feared, fierce nun-principal, Shannon does not back down.

St. Lawrence Church

DM: The head nun makes for a strong antagonist. Sister Bienenkönigin is an angry, authoritarian “queen bee” with a strong “desire for order.” She views Shannon as an “intruder” from California who refuses to follow rules. For their confirmation name, the students are told to choose a saint “who speaks to you.” Shannon chooses a name, all right. A male name. Damien. Which would drive Sister Bienenkönigin crazy, even if that weren’t also the name of a demon child in a famous movie. But Shannon has actually followed the dictum of choosing a saint who spoke to her. Damien spent his life caring for a leper colony—very admirable. Dawn Major has set up a compelling conflict between these two characters, each a force of nature in her own way.

CHM: It’s often said that conflict drives a story, and here, in The Bystanders, conflicts abound, but not in this huge, big, action-thriller type of way. Rather the conflicts are within relationships and personal confrontations, especially those involving Shannon. As the classic outsider with her unique style of dress and different speech patterns, Shannon is smart, strong willed and with an utterly wonderful adherence to herself—which destines her for conflict. She keeps upsetting the natural, expected order in the town.

However, conflicts between Shannon, her mother, and her stepfather give the story much of its suspense, creating a story arc with palpable tension as readers wait for the other shoe to drop.

Annual Picnic Flyer

DM: Like so many teens, Shannon is often embarrassed by her mother, so that tension is very relatable. And Shannon’s smart mouth goads her mother and stepfather into confrontations with her and also with each other.

CHM: Yet this is also a strong mother and daughter story. Their relationship and the mother’s complete devotion to her daughter stands out during a slumber party in their ratty trailer. The party is going seriously wrong for Shannon until her mother steps in and saves the day. I won’t tell you what the mother does—read it for yourself and see, but it’s truly a great moment in the story (which has many great moments).

DM: That slumber party is a great scene showcasing how easily teen friends can betray each other as well as a mother’s fierce love for her daughter.

Dew Drop Inn – Bloomsdale 11-09-2012, fictional setting where Tina worked.

CHM: I mentioned before how in some ways the novel is written in connected short stories. This is a technique Dawn Major uses well—along with her shifting points of view—to create a mosaic of the town and its residents. One of the smaller stories that particularly captured me is that of Tina, a once-cute bar maid now past her prime and yet oddly content with her small life in a small town. That is, until the arrival of Dale. His handsomeness disguises his undesirable qualities and upsets the natural order of things. When Tina takes a long bus trip to be with Dale, things quickly go awry. The trip does not end up at all like Tina had hoped. This part of the book also contains one of the best lines in the novel: “It was as if she was a bystander in her own nightmare.”

DM: That was a great line and captures that out-of-body, this-can’t be-happening-to-me feeling so perfectly. Both Tina and Shannon’s mother Wendy find themselves in abusive relationships with Dale. Reluctantly, Wendy realizes “His version of love was tainted with obsession, violence, and jealousy.” Like many women, Wendy finds escape from an abusive relationship isn’t easy. Too often people think, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Dawn Major shows us just how difficult it can be. Wendy’s desire to escape, to create a safe environment for herself and her daughter adds tension to the novel. Wendy’s final confrontation with her husband is such a powerful, scary scene.

Jealousy and love, fear and violence, inclusion and exclusion—all the good and the bad of small-town life—are present. Readers will recognize themselves and their neighbors in the characters and see similarities between their hometowns and Lawrenceton in this excellent novel. Scenes of outlandish dark humor as well as those highlighting serious social issues make The Bystanders the sort of worthwhile story that lingers in your thoughts long after reading it.

The Bystanders is the sort of worthwhile story that lingers in your thoughts long after reading it.




Dawn Major

Find out more about Dawn Major here and here.


  1. You two, Donna and Claire, are the best! I love the structure of your review as well. Thanks!

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