Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Dry Grass of August - Anna Jean Mayhew

Summary:  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. (Summary from book - Image from www.mlive.com )

My Review:  The Dry Grass of August is a coming-of-age work of literary fiction.  It tells the story of Jubie, a young white girl growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement who endures her father’s drunken tirades and her mother’s indifference by relying on the sheltering compassion of Mary Luther, the family’s black maid.  When Jubie, her mother, and siblings sets off for a vacation they bring Mary along to help out, dragging her right through the heart of some of the nation’s more violently segregationist states.   

Although The Dry Grass of August has been compared to another bestselling book (The Help), it is more than able to stand on its own merit and earn its own praise.  The two books may have similarities in setting and theme, but they are very different stories. 

Jubie is an awkward but observant thirteen-year-old who is learning to navigate the minefield of adolescence.   As the story shifts between present day (1954) and defining moments in her childhood, Jubie begins to notice the garish threads of racism, intolerance, and hatred woven tightly throughout her world and struggles to reconcile them with her feelings for Mary, the one woman who has always shown her love, and Leesum, a young black boy that she befriends.     
Mayhew's supporting characters were fluid and ever evolving; they weren’t instantly pegged as good or bad, according to their racial ideologies, but rather as average people coming to terms with their own beliefs on a controversial issue.  It was easy to see how they felt through their behavior and how those feelings changed over the course of the book.   The racism portrayed in this novel ranged from unconcealed animosity to the more subtle (yet equally as offensive) assumptions and behaviors. Oddly, I was almost more disturbed by the characters who were pretending not be racist than the ones who were open about it.

This novel was rich in atmosphere, well researched, and skillfully detailed, which allowed me to really sink into the story -- and I do love sinking.  The plot had a well-paced and deliberate build.  I spent much of the book tied up in knots (the good kind), bracing for the inevitable racial confrontation, and straining to uncover the family’s secrets.  It took Anna Jean Mayhew eighteen years to finish this book and, in my opinion, it was well worth the wait. 

My Rating: 4.5 Stars
For the sensitive reader:  Some violence.  Very few instances of profanity, but pervasive use of the “N” word which would normally bother me, but I felt was necessary within the context of the story.  Some comments of a sexual nature either regarding Jubie’s physical  development or her accidental encounter with her amorous parents.   The incident was fairly awkward, but it was told from a fairly naïve perspective. 
Sum it up:  A coming of age novel that doesn’t need any Help to stand on its own.

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