Dawn Newton’s just-released novel, “Remnants of Summer,” filled me with nostalgia for my Michigan roots and it often brought tears to my eyes. The coming-of-age novel is an engaging mix of innocence and being faced with harsh realities.
“I wanted to write a novel that captured both the beauty and the darker strains that I saw in life during my adolescence,” Newton said. “I was also quite focused on exploring grief.”
“Remnants” takes place during the summers of 1973 and 1974. A teenage girl named Iris experiences both the joys of living near a lake, and the tragedy that breaks her family apart.
“I began writing the novel over 30 years ago while living in Virginia — knowing I wanted to capture a Michigan setting,” Newton said.
Her parents’ deaths in 1993 overwhelmed her with grief. “I realized the novel I wrote needed to honor them and my childhood in some way while exploring the emotional terrain,” she said.
Born and raised in Southeastern Michigan, and now living in East Lansing, Newton received scholarships to Michigan State University and John Hopkins University. She was trained as a fiction writer and taught at several colleges and K-12 classrooms in Virginia and Michigan. “I absolutely love teaching,” Newton said. “I learn so much from students.”
She taught at Lansing Community College from 1998 to 2006 as an adjunct professor and later as a full-time writing instructor.
“I found it challenging to deal with the paper load and raising children,” Newton said. “I eventually moved on to an adjunct position at Oakland University.”
Writing the book over a three-decade period was hugely nostalgic for her.
“Every time I took a deep dive into the material, I would be transported to those days and things I thought and felt,” she said. Writing gave her opportunities to revisit her parents’ quirks and humor, and their wonderful family moments.
“Remnants” is often autobiographical. The parents in the 279-page novel are similar to Newton’s. “The older sister, Liz, is a version of my older sister,” she said. “I’m certain that Iris is a version of me.”
Mentions of child murders are based on the Oakland County Child Killings of 1976-1977.
“Since the case was unsolved, I knew I didn’t want to include actual details — except for the blue Gremlin, which was a key aspect of the original search for the killer,” Newton said.
At the time, she lived in Oakland County and was a senior in high school.
“I remember being very affected by the killings, thinking some of the thoughts that Iris did,” Newton said.
The MIA soldier that Iris is attached to in the novel, Colonel Patrick M. Fallon, is a Vietnam pilot who was shot down in 1969. Newton actually saw the televised interview with Fallon’s wife that Iris sees in the book.
The character known as Sheldon was inspired by a man Newton worked with at a stock brokerage after returning to Michigan following graduate school. Sheldon’s work ethic was similar to her dad’s.
Like the families in “Remnants,” she had access to a lake. “I grew up in a working-class neighborhood where the residents had beach privileges,” Newton said.
Writing “Remnants” was painful.
“I was mourning for the children lost to serial killers and the POW’s and MIA’s of that generation,” she said. “I had to relive my parent’s deaths and to revisit the struggles of adolescence.”
Although begun much earlier, the new fiction novel is Newton’s second published book. “Winded: A Memoir in Four Stages” was released just before the pandemic began. “The reviews were good and I was happy how it turned out,” she said.
Getting the memoir published permitted a two-book deal that meant “Remnants” could finally be printed. “In a weird twist of fate, I had the good fortune of getting stage IV lung cancer, living long enough to write a memoir about it, publishing it and then going back to the novel I wrote so long ago,” Newton said.
“Winded” gives insights to Newton’s cancer battles, which she has struggled with since 2012.
“‘Winded’ provided me with a concrete way of addressing and dealing with my cancer,” she said. “It allowed me opportunities to learn and research my disease and share some of my day-to-day frustrations.”
Which book is she most proud of? “It’s a tie,” Newton said.