The Watts family of Charlotte, North Carolina, is embarking on their first family trip without their father as they head south to visit Mrs. Watts's brother in Florida one summer. It doesn't take long for young Jubie to see the difference in the treatment of whites and blacks. Coming along with Jubie, her mother, older sister Stell, younger sister Puddin and baby brother Davie is Mary, their hardworking and loving family maid.
All along the way, the trip is punctuated by rules and regulations they must follow. Mary can't stay in the hotel with them; instead, she must check into a black hotel down the block. She can't use the restroom in the restaurant where they stop for lunch; instead, she has to go to the outhouse in the back field. And in one town it's glaringly obvious, when the first thing they come across is a sign that tells them "NEGROES --- Observe Curfew! WHITES ONLY after sundown!" Jubie had never realized the vast differences before. To her and her siblings, Mary was part of their family. It seemed odd that so many restrictions apply to her, just because of her skin color.
After a brief stopover at their uncle's in Pensacola, a car accident in a small backwoods Georgia town puts a kink in their plans, and they must stay in a local motel until their car is repaired. Jubie may be only 13, but she's old enough to know that there is more to their family vacation than meets the eye. Her young cousin lets slip with a comment about her mother having an affair with their father, and she realizes just why Daddy didn't come with them this time. Her mother is holing up, trying to decide her next move. Along with the family drama, a violent incident rocks all of them to their core, and Jubie learns a hard lesson about the way of the world, circa 1954 in the South.
Anna Jean Mayhew's debut novel vividly demonstrates a particular time in American history through the prism of a young girl's coming of age. Jubie may not fully grasp all the events swirling around her and her family, but she keenly feels the injustice of it all. Her tween alienation from her conservative parents and her close relationship with Mary show a different vantage point to race relations at that time. Mary offers love and comfort when her preoccupied parents cannot. Why should she be treated any differently?
The angst and ennui of a young girl on the brink of her teenage years recall classics like Carson McCullers's THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING; fans of that powerful novel of the South, along with THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE HELP, will surely embrace this heartfelt novel. And the violent and heartbreaking resolution will leave readers breathless and members of book groups heatedly conversing into the wee hours.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on April 4, 2011
The Dry Grass of August