The Dry Grass of August
Anna Jean Mayhew (Adult Fiction)
In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about. It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair. But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead. And Mary would still be with us.
It’s 1954 and Jubie Watts, her mother, brother, sisters, and their maid, Mary, are embarking on the ultimate road trip from Charlotte, North Carolina to Florida. They’re traveling without father and there’s talk of the Klan in Georgia. “We’ll be fine,” Mama assured. She needed this trip and nothing was going to change her mind. So with that final word, the six of them headed out in the family’s Packard for a journey that would have unforeseeable impacts on them all.
Several reviewers noted that fans of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help (I read it and count myself as a fan) would also enjoy this book. “A must-read,” one went so far as saying. But other than the story being set in the South during segregation, the parallels stop there. Mayhew’s story does deal with the atrocities of racial and social injustice, but—through the Watts family—she also delves into the darkness of infidelity, alcoholism, and physical abuse. This is a story about both a country and a family being torn apart from the inside out. The ugliness of racial disparity and the effects of substance abuse are on full display and is authentic in their depiction and raw in their detail. What’s perhaps most disturbing is the fact that in this place and time in American history, these behaviors were indeed the status quo and viewed as socially acceptable.
In the back of the book, there is an author Q&A section where Mayhew is asked if her novel is young adult fiction given that her protagonist is thirteen years old. Mayhew answers, “My novel is literary fiction; however, I hope young adults will read it, because it’s set in a time long before their lives and can give them a look into history through the eyes of someone of their age.” I searched Penguin Teen for iconic YA heroines and pulled up such descriptions as “sharpshooter, ancient beast tamer”, “futuristic Resistance fighter”, “post-apocalyptic survivor”, “female gladiator”, and “dress-wearing demon destroyer”. After reading The Dry Grass of August, it was refreshing to see just an ordinary young girl standing up for principles she feels are worth defending and standing beside people she feels are worth protecting. Jubie Watts is such a person and a heroine that any reader—young or old—can learn a thing or two from.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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