Published: 1 August 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
In this beautifully written debut, Anna Jean Mayhew offers a riveting depiction of Southern life in the throes of segregation and what it will mean for a young girl on her way to adulthood and for the woman who means the world to her.
On a scorching day in August 1954, thirteen-year-old Jubie Watts leaves Charlotte, North Carolina, with her family for a Florida vacation. Crammed into the Packard along with Jubie are her three siblings, her mother, and the family's black maid, Mary Luther. For as long as Jubie can remember, Mary has been there cooking, cleaning, compensating for her father's rages and her mother's benign neglect, and loving Jubie unconditionally.
Bright and curious, Jubie takes note of the anti-integration signs they pass and of the racial tension that builds as they journey further south. But she could never have predicted the shocking turn their trip will take. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Jubie must confront her parents failings and limitations, decide where her own convictions lie, and make the tumultuous leap to independence.
Infused with the intensity of a changing time, here is a story of hope, heartbreak, and the love and courage that can transform us from child to adult, wounded to indomitable.
For Jubie Watts, the summer of 1954 will be memorable for all the wrong reasons as the fabric of her family life is torn apart by an act of racism in an era where the segregation laws are being repealed. Although the Watts family may look like the ideal family from the outside, the reality is vastly different as Bill Watts is an abusive alcoholic who cheats on his wife. Jubie’s main source of comfort is Mary, the family’s coloured maid, who is far more involved in the children’s lives than their own mother and whom Jubie adores.
The harsh realities of life in the south are about to hit Jubie hard when her mother decides to take the children to visit their uncle in Florida and Mary goes with them. The further south they travel, the more obvious the racism towards Mary becomes and Jubie is left perplexed as to why anyone would want to be mean to Mary because of the colour of her skin. When a vicious assault leaves Mary dead, Jubie is devastated by her loss and even more dismayed when her mother says they can’t go to Mary’s funeral.
The Dry Grass of August was somewhat of a mixed bag for me. While I loved Jubie as a narrator and felt the author had captured her voice perfectly, the plot itself is very uneven since nothing much happens throughout the majority of the book and then suddenly we have a multitude of dramatic events all unravelling at the same time. Since the focus is supposed to be on Jubie and Mary’s relationship, the assault needed to happen much earlier so we could see the full extent of the effect it would have on Jubie but instead it becomes lost amongst all the other events that take place afterwards. Instead, the last few chapters follow the effects Bill Watt’s unscrupulous business practices have on the family and the eventual disintegration of his marriage. The business corruption comes out of nowhere, mainly because we are only privy to what Jubie knows, however it is all revealed too late to make any sort of an impression, as are his connections to a white supremacy group.
As you would expect, racism is a central theme running throughout, however it is also a mixed bag. I liked how Jubie’s mother behaved in an ambiguous way around Mary, such as not being overtly racist but always making sure Mary knew her place, which struck me as being honest and real. Additionally, I also liked how the acts of racism were seen to become increasingly hostile the further south the family went which I assume represents the differing attitudes of the era. Unfortunately, the letdown comes with the author relying a little too much on the reader being au fait with the topic of segregation so there’s not much exposition on the subject which seems incredible considering what was going on. The Brown v Board of Education case declaring segregation in schools as unlawful was a landmark one in American history, but it is only mentioned in passing in the book so its importance is never fully realised. In fact, if the book hadn’t been set in the summer months when schools were out, we could’ve witnessed everything through the eyes of Jubie when she returned to school in the fall.
While I agree the author manages to capture the era convincingly, imbuing the writing with a sense of nostalgia which was enjoyable to read for the most part, I really don’t think she manages to convey the emotions of her characters adequately enough. I’m not sure if this is down to Jubie’s age making her unable to articulate what she is feeling, but there are plenty of adult characters who should’ve filled that gap. The author states in the afterword she didn’t want this book marketed as Young Adult as she felt it would limit readership, but I feel it belongs more in that target group as it just doesn’t have enough depth for most adults who love historical fiction.