If you liked reading “The Help,” by Kathryn Sockett, you’ll might like “The Dry Grass of August,” by Anna Jean Mayhew. Both authors drew on their experience growing up in the South in the ’50s and ’60s with black domestic helpers who were an integral part of their daily lives and who they loved.
Some other interesting similarities. “The Help” was first published in 2009, whereas “Dry Grass” was completed in 2005 but not published until 2011. It took six years to find a publisher, and I for one am glad that it did. “The Help,” according to an interview with Socket took five years to write and got at least 45 rejection letters. Mayhew’s book was 18 years in the making. The seed of the story was planted in 1957 when Mayhew was 17 years old and had an experience in segregation that made a lasting impression on her.
My book discussion group was fortunate to have Mayhew join us by phone for our recent discussion of “Dry Grass” and gave us further insights into the characters, the setting, and theme of the book. When the publisher asked Mayhew to describe her story in one sentence, her reply was, “It’s about how resistance to change can kill us.”
This story is about change — how some resist and others bend. As our country was changing dramatically in the ’50s and early-’60s, we experience this social change through the eyes of the Watts family from Charlotte, N.C., and especially through the voice of 13-year-old June Bentley Watts, known as Jubie. Jubie has the innocence of a child as well as the wisdom of an observant adult. A one-line comment from Jubie’s perspective speaks volumes. Jubie’s love for the family’s domestic helper, Mary Luther, is evident in every gesture and this novel becomes a page-turner with the foreboding of Mary’s destiny that begins on page one.
Several journeys of “change” take place, some physical and some symbolic. One is the actual family vacation to Florida where Jubie, her mother, and her three siblings, along with Mary, are crammed into the Packard. Racial tensions build as they travel further south.
At the same time, Jubie’s mother, Paula, also travels an emotional journey as she tries to deal with her husband’s infidelity. Bill, a pillar of the business community, has his own journey and fall from grace when a tragic accident occurs in their community, shattering many beliefs and lives.
Jubie and her older sister, Stell, both experience a coming-of-age summer as they are attracted to the opposite sex. Stell has her boyfriend, the boy next door, while Jubie finds herself attracted to Leesum, a black boy whose friendship, although innocent, is forbidden.
Because the main character Jubie is 13, Mayhew was asked if her book was young-adult fiction. She says that although it is literary fiction for all ages, she hopes young adults will read it because it is set in a time and place long before their lives and can give them a look into history through the eyes of someone their age.
If you grew up in the ’50s you’ll love reliving the detailed references to every-day life. If you did not, you will soon have a valid picture of the ’50s culture, from music to soda pop to hairstyles, and clothing. It’s a sensory novel through Jubie’s eyes and ears — I could taste the food, smell the flowers blooming and feel the oppressive heat and humidity of a sweltering August day in the South.
As for the title, from Isaiah Five comes the quote, “and as dry grass sinks down in flame...”, speaking of those who do evil. Many evil things took place in the South during those turbulent years, yet from that time comes an intense yet hopeful story of a young girl’s love for domestic helper Mary — a love that caused Jubie to do what was right in spite of great risk.
I think you’ll find this family’s journey interesting as it reflects not only their personal losses and growth, but our country’s as well.
Included is a reader’s discussion guide with 15 questions for book groups as well as an interview with the author. Thank you Mayhew for persisting 18 years to bring this story to us.
Former bookstore owner Vy Armour has been a resident of Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 20 years. She is an adjunct instructor in communications at the University of Phoenix and reviews books on her blog, http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.