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About The Book

From the National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage, a fearless fictional portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his pivotal moment in American history.

Set against the tensions of Civil Rights era America, Dreamer is a remarkable fictional excursion into the last two years of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, when the political and personal pressures on this country's most preeminent moral leader were the greatest. While in Chicago for his first northern campaign against poverty and inequality, King encounters Chaym Smith, whose startling physical resemblance to King wins him the job of official stand-in. Matthew Bishop, a civil rights worker and loyal follower of King, is given the task of training the smart and deeply cynical Smith for the job. In doing so, Bishop must face the issue of what makes one man great while another man can only stand in for greatness. Provocative, heartfelt, and masterfully rendered, Charles Johnson confirms yet again that he is one of the great treasures of modern American literature.

Dr. Charles Johnson is a novelist, screenwriter, essayist, professional cartoonist and the Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington. He is the author of more than sixteen books, including the PEN/Faulkner nominated story collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the novel Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award.

Reading Group Guide

1. Who is the real "dreamer" in this novel? Is it Dr. King, dreaming of a world filled with equality and racial harmony? Is it Matthew Bishop, dreaming of the day he will truly become his own man, an individual who shines in his own glory rather than hides in the shadow of others? Or is it Chaym Smith, dreaming of the day he will achieve greatness like Dr. King, yet remain true to his own beliefs?
2. A major turning point for Matthew is the moment he gives in to his anger at the diner, lashing out at the waitress for her racist behavior. He is exhilarated by his response, even though it goes against everything Dr. King stands for. Discuss other events in Matthew's life that reflect Chaym's influence. Is it wrong for Matthew to behave in this manner, or is it a necessary step he must take to come to terms with his own anger and disillusionment?
3. Discuss ways in which Chaym and Matthew mirror each other. Both are smart and insightful, but while one always tries to take "the high road," the other is empowered by his refusal to accept the terms of others. Who ultimately emerges as the winner?
4. Many literary texts use the "doppelgänger" as a means to explore issues of good versus evil and nature versus nurture. How effectively does Johnson use this device to examine these and other issues? Compare his treatment to other books, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
5. Do you agree with Chaym's assertion that "all narratives are lies"? What does he mean when he says this? That we (individually or as a group) revise history to fit our needs, conveniently "forgetting" events that do not suit out agenda? Does the ability to revise the past make it easier to live with?
6. When Chaym is slated to make his first public appearance as Dr. King, Matthew closely watches the pulpit, unsure if the man at the podium is Chaym or Dr. King. Who did you think was making the speech as you read the novel? Is Chaym capable of giving such a speech? Discuss ways in which Chaym's fate might have changed had he, as planned, stood in for Dr. King that fateful day?
7. As Chaym dejectedly watches Dr. King accept congratulations for his rousing speech at the A.M.E. church, Matthew describes him as "undergoing a living death in the great man's presence." Doesn't this statement actually describe what Matthew himself goes through every day?
8. Chaym's emotional growth is charted by his drawings. His earlier artwork, completed before he joined the Movement, seems to focus on his own personal misery. Later, he looks outward and depicts the beauty he finds in his surroundings. What other events signal Chaym's growth?
9. Part of Matthew's job is to keep a detailed record of the Movement. Is Matthew an accurate keeper of the flame? Does his role as history's scribe make him more powerful than Smith, maybe even more powerful than Dr. King?
10. Matthew describes himself as "the insecure, callow prop in the background of someone else's story." Do you agree with his assessment? Is Matthew an observer or a participant in the making of history? Is he underestimating his importance to the Civil Rights Movement because he believes that his contributions are dwarfed by those of "great men" like Dr. King?
11. In the end, does Dr. King experience a change of heart when he questions the validity of his peaceful methods? Is this Chaym's influence shining through? Is King giving up or giving in to pressure?
12. What do you think about Chaym's ultimate decision to leave? Is he saving himself, or is he making a sacrifice for the good of Dr. King and the Movement? Was his leaving really the only possible outcome to his situation? What do you think ultimately became of Chaym?
13. What resemblances are there in the story of King and Chaym to the biblical tale of Cain and Abel? Consider the following:
There is a moment when each man discovers God. For King, it is a transforming experience that shows him the way to confront the world's evil, while Chaym's faith is short-lived, and he becomes disillusioned by the evils of the world. How does each man's relationship to God affect what happens to him?
What are Chaym's motivations in helping King? Is his offer to be a decoy a true gesture of self-sacrifice? Or does he covet King's position as a great and beloved leader?
Chaym eventually succumbs to the FBI's threats and cooperates with them out of fear, but we never learn exactly what happens to him. Do you think he betrays King? Might he be responsible for his death in some way?
Chaym is able to imitate King in all aspects except his faith in God. Does Chaym represent what King might have been without God?
14. Many famous figures who came to symbolize peace during their lives (King, Ghandi, Rabin, and even John Lennon) have been struck down by assassins' bullets. Discuss the irony of such voices of reason being silenced by the violence they loathed. Do you think Dr. King would be America's martyred symbol for Civil Rights had he not been murdered in his prime? Does his murder allow us to conduct our own kind of historical revision by letting us forget his limits as a man and leader, and focus solely on his tremendous achievements?

Charles Johnson was the first black American male since Ralph Ellison to win the National Book Award for fiction, which he received for Middle Passage. His fiction has been much anthologized, and he was named in a survey conducted by the University of Southern California as one of the ten best short-story writers in America. A widely published literary critic, philosopher, cartoonist, essayist, screenwriter, and lecturer, he is one of twelve African American authors honored in an international stamp series celebrating great writers of the twentieth century. Johnson's alma mater, Southern Illinois University, administers the Charles Johnson Award for Fiction and Poetry, a nationwide competition inaugurated in 1994 for college students. He was also awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. He is currently the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Washington and lives in Seattle with his wife, Joan, and their two children.

About The Author

Lynette Huffman-Johnson

Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary scholar, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. A MacArthur fellow, his fiction includes Night HawksDr. King’s RefrigeratorDreamerFaith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (February 2, 1999)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684854434

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Raves and Reviews

Dennis McFarland The New York Times Book Review It's a joy to read fiction in which there is a cultivated vision at work...the greatest victory of Dreamer is the light it shines on the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Andy Solomon The Boston Globe With compelling profundity and power Johnson takes us to a time, one within living memory, when a "dreamer" among us saw love as our redemptive principle and strongest weapon before he "died for our collective racial sins."

Patricia Holt San Francisco Chronicle With his novelist's instinct, [Johnson] grips us immediately with a stunning doppelgänger theme.

John Marshall Seattle Weekly A deep look at the last two crisis years in the life of [King]...Johnson is an ambitious writer who is not satisfied with merely creating...passages of imagined thinking, however powerfully rendered.

Bruce Barcott The Seattle Times Masterfully rendered set piece...writing so assured and compelling...even when you already know the ending.

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