The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew

March 2, 2013

Plot summary (from the publisher): 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, from wounded to indomitable.

Warning: Major spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Jubie’s relationship with Mary was beautifully portrayed. It was clear that they truly cared about each other beyond the employee-charge labels, so Jubie’s later grief upon learning of Mary’s death felt real and authentic.
  • I liked that Jubie and Estelle were shown as having chores of their own to do around the house. Despite having Mary there, the children were also expected to pitch in. I realize this probably wasn’t done out of any sense of enlightenment on the parents’ part, but still it was something I noticed.
  • I liked that the Watts family had plenty of (believable) skeletons in the closet. They were outwardly “normal” and perhaps even better off than average. But behind that exterior were common problems such as adultery (Bill/the father with the sister-in-law), abuse (Bill’s vicious whippings of Jubie), embezzlement (Bill cooking the books at his company), and racism and/or ignorance regarding Mary and other blacks.
  • I loved that Jubie went to Mary’s funeral. Bill and even Paula (the mother) were so damn heartless and uncaring about Mary’s brutal rape and murder; all they wanted to do was get on with the next leg of their vacation. But Jubie simply wouldn’t have been able to live with herself had she not said goodbye to Mary, so she took matters into her own hands by stealing one of the family cars and driving back home for the funeral. As the mom said at the end, it was the right thing to do.
  • It was good to see that the household fell into disarray after Mary’s death. It was only then that Mrs. Watts realized how much she relied on Mary and how trustworthy, smart, and competent a person Mary was. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, right?
  • I’m glad that things didn’t work out perfectly in the end. Bill was found criminally negligent for skimping on the diving board parts and indirectly causing that boy’s death; Paula finally worked up the courage to divorce him; and the family (Mrs. Watts and her four children) were forced to live in a small apartment without the amenities and perks they’d grown used to.

Disliked:

  • I didn’t like the scene where Jubie hid under the motel room bed while her parents had sex above her. It’s not that I’m prudish about sex scenes in books; it’s just that this one felt so contrived and cliche, and really added nothing to any of the characters involved. Plus, having Jubie see her dad’s penis before sneaking back out of the room upped the gross factor for me.
  • The scene where Mary was beaten and kidnapped by those rednecks was very, very difficult to read. Obviously I understand why it was there, but I would *almost* have preferred that action to take place off-screen. (Almost.)
  • I thought the character of Leesum Fields was kind of unnecessary. He didn’t have a big role in the book, and only served to, what, show that Jubie was more open-minded regarding blacks than her father was? That had already been established.
  • The beginning of the book was a bit slow and took some time to work through, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

Rating:

The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jane Mayhew was a very good debut novel. Although I can’t speak to how realistic her portrayal of life in the segregated South is, I can say that the book was quite readable and engrossing. I enjoyed watching Jubie Watts come of age, and can imagine how these events would shape the rest of her days. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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