January Pick: Mayhew's The Dry Grass of August
When Jubie climbs into the back of the family car, jammed between her sister, baby brother, and family maid Mary, she has no idea that the trip to the beach will change her entire life. Paula, Jubie’s mother, is taking her children to visit her brother, and decides to take Mary with them. The idea of having that much time with just the children on the road terrifies Paula, so she quiets her fears about taking her black help through segregated Georgia and gets everyone into the station wagon.
Jubie loves Mary and sees her as more of a mother and support system than she sees Paula, but at the age of 13, she has little understanding of the roles bigotry and racism play in her world. To her, Mary is the only person who hugs her after her father beats her. She has no idea that to the adults around her, Mary is not a person, but a means of assistance. Paula plays to the notion of respect, forbidding her children to use the “n” word around her and trying to talk to Mary like an equal, but when she has the opportunities to stand up for Mary – and all black people – to her friends, she plays dumb. Jubie instinctively knows that her mother is wrong, that there is tremendous injustice in her home, but she has few tools to combat it.
As Anna Jean Mayhew describes the slow trip through Georgia, she reveals a backward, racist South, one that is reeling from the landmark court decision of Brown vs. Board. The fear for and of black people in these small, isolated towns palpitates off the sweating cement with the heat. Told from the perspective of 13-year-old Jubie, Mayhew’s narrative places the reader in the unique position of learning as Jubie learns. Granted there are still hurdles in our day, but segregation is long behind us, and many readers have no concept of what life was like during that turbulent, discriminating time. As Jubie discovers what it is like for black people to live in this environment – and what this bigotry means for whites – the reader learns, too. The story is a subtle one, made all the more nuanced by age of the narrator, and Mayhew does a stellar job of creating vibrant characters with complex problems to draw us into her story. Similar to The Help in its assessment of race relations, The Dry Grass of August is a powerful story about a young girl’s devotion.