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Friday, April 19, 2013

THE DRY GRASS OF AUGUST – by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August is a very good book and I would read it again. It takes place in 1954 when Jubie's family leaves Charlotte, North Carolina to go on a vacation to see her uncle in Florida taking along the black maid, Mary. It is beautifully written with many dimensions. While it is a coming-of-age story for Jubie, it is also a commentary of the upper middle classes in conflict, and the dawning age of civil rights. Jubie's father fights alcoholism, her mother suffers under his oppression and her own unrest.

At some time in everyone's life there comes an awareness of wrinkles in the fabric of social life. It was 1957 for me. The second grade was exciting, fun, interesting, and kids were inviting each other to parties where we were beginning to learn that all families were a little different. At dinner one evening I announced to my family that I had a boyfriend, Curtis. He was so funny, and kind. He spoke softly and always picked up my pencil or book if I dropped it. He had a wonderful smile and all the other kids appeared to like him. Silence filled our warm kitchen. Finally my oldest brother said, “Curtis cannot be your boyfriend, he's a negro and you are not.” My family went on chatting and eating while I considered that a bit but not for too long. I do remember thinking, “Oh, ok, well then I guess I will like Mark.” Today I ponder why children accept those things so easily. That memory surfaced while reading The Dray Grass because I could relate to thirteen year old Jubie's innocence about matters of race and violence in the 50s, and her infatuation with the black boy, Leesum whom she meets in Florida.

Jubie had Mary all her life, she loves her unconditionally and Mary loves her. Jubie never entertains ideas of other people's lives being any different or others seeing things other than the way she does. So as the family traverses south and she sees more and more signs of segregation and racism she is bothered by it but doesn't take it as seriously as she should. When real tragedy happens she is ill equipped to handle it. The adults in the book seem to me to be real and accurate portraits of the 1950s. Jubie's mother, Paula, while loving her family she is detached from their everyday lives, she is dissatisfied and suspects her husband of infidelity. The town they live in is also changing and Jubie herself is growing up.

Mary has always been more than a maid to the family, she has been cook, nurse, and mother stand-in. Some say that the author by portraying her so subservient, dismissive, and not able to make eye contact with white people, makes her not a believable character when reader knows Mary is intelligent, loving, and principled. History tells us that is the way black maids operated at that time during the Jim Crow laws. To make her other than that, for us who remember would be the untruth.

When the family finally does fall apart, Jubie must face the flaws in her parents, the limitations of what she can and cannot do, and the injustice of her world, as we all do. She is a great protagonist to live with for a whole novel and she is full of love and courage. While you know that there may be hope for her flawed parents to learn and rebuild, you want to go with Jubie into her uncertain future so I am hoping for another novel from Mayhew taking Jubie into adulthood.

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