A daring literary hoax, and a startling fiction debut
Autograph Album purports to be a work of social history, presenting meticulously researched biographies of everyone who signed an autograph album belonging to the author’s great-grandmother in 1890s Boston. In fact, the autograph album is real (a stranger’s, purchased on eBay), but the biographies are entirely fictional.
The book is structured around a near-facsimile reproduction of the autograph album of one Annie McFarlane, a young girl who lived between Boston and Vanceboro, Maine, in the late nineteenth century. Autograph albums―a distinct class of artifact long since superseded by school yearbooks―were small keepsake volumes in which young people collected the signatures and well wishes (often expressed in trite sentimental verse) of their classmates, friends, and family. Like most examples, Annie McFarlane’s autograph album reveals a suggestive range of inscriptions, from the crude scrawl of Colin A. Chishom (folio 4r) to the florid swirls of Annie Reardon (22v) and the stiff, correct hand of Eva Dockham (27r).
For each of these names and signatures, Dawes has imagined a life story, which appears beneath the corresponding facsimile page. Read together, the fictional biographies reveal the character and family history of an unreliable scholar-narrator (Dawes's alter ego) and offer a darkly humorous view of New England history and culture.
The brilliance and perversity of this literary hoax are underscored by its fine production values: it is printed in full color throughout. Autograph Album will appeal to readers who enjoy an inventive wit, and those stamped or scarred by the city of Henry Adams and Albert DeSalvo.