The Dry Grass of August
by Anna Jean Mayhew

Book Review
For her debut novel, published in 2011 and in its tenth printing, Mayhew tackled an especially contentious era in United States’ history. Her story begins in Charlotte, North Carolina, three months after the Supreme Court ruled (May 17, 1954) that public schools must integrate. Mayhew’s story is a literal and figurative journey beginning with the Watts’ family—contemporary society in miniature—as they prepare for a trip.

Pauly Watts with her children—Stell (16), Jubie (13), Puddin’ (7), and Davey (2 years)—and Mary Luther, her maid, are leaving to visit Taylor, her brother in Pensacola, Florida. Bill, head of the Watts family and happy to be alone so he can drink and play golf all day, arranges mounds of luggage in the trunk. In the front seat with Pauly are the recently saved Stell with Davey, Bill’s pride and joy, between them in his car seat. Behind Pauly is Mary, “sitting straight and tall” with Jubie happily holding her hand and Puddin’ between her and the door. The chapters alternate between their trip to Florida and the characters’ journey as a family, told from Jubie’s tolerant perspective. Unlike her parents and older sister, Jubie has never learned to hate.

Like Mary, June “Jubie” Bentley Watts is a victim of discrimination. Five years old when Mary was hired, she was the “first colored person [Jubie had] ever known.” Shy peeps from behind the couch blossomed into a mother-daughter friendship. Jubie helps Mary with her housework, resents the “little meannesses” that she endures, and considers Mary “the heart of the home.”

Though her family never verbally reproaches Jubie, their discrimination ranges from physical to mental. She is the only child that Bill beats, and Jubie notes that Pauly never hugged and kissed her like she does Puddin’. Bill’s mother presents Stell with a silver charm bracelet and Puddin’ with a rainbow of hair ribbons. Jubie receives talcum powder and two crochet hooks. Little does her shallow family realize that Jubie, if forced to choose, would never betray her friendship with Mary.

Mary Luther, on the surface, is a docile and obedient employee who, for $25 weekly, keeps the Watts’ home immaculate and orderly. Since Pauly is a mother in title only, Mary joyfully mothers Puddin’ and Davey. Beneath Mary’s quiet facade is a woman of dignity and faith, courage and loyalty. If she hears “nigger” in the household she bravely “forgets her place,” and Mary risks everything to help a homeless boy. Pauly refuses to intervene when Bill, in a drunken rage, beats Jubie—“This time he’s going to kill me”— with the buckle end of his belt until Mary commands, “Mr. Watts, you stop that now . . . . You’re all het up, Mr. Watts.” Pauly’s sole concern afterwards is hiding the welts and cuts for church the next day. Mary hugs Jubie close and whispers, “That was a mean, wrong thing for your father to do . . . .” During the trip, as at home, Mary watches over the Watts children.

Bill and Pauly reveal their racism before pulling out of the driveway; he commands her to not let Mary ride up front and she replies, “I’d never do such a fool thing.” They consider Mary “my girl” in the same sense as “my car” or “my house.” Bill, a brazen racist, uses his influence as a prominent, but unscrupulous, businessman and country club president to scare “. . . coloreds into giving up on voting, education. Other stuff.” An equally dedicated womanizer, Bill is entirely undiscriminating about his partners and indifferent to the pain and humiliation he causes his family and community because, “She asked for it.”

Aware of her father’s philandering, though initially not his partners, Jubie poignantly recalls the days when her parents were happily married and wonders how much longer their marriage can last. Despite the fear she feels for her father, their tender moments together make their relationship complex.

Pauly’s racism is based on her choice to fulfill social class mores over acknowledging the respect and appreciation she feels for Mary. An occasional kindness to Mary and Pauly’s show of never saying “nigger” and promptly correcting people who do make a poor balm for her insults and demands.

That Pauly takes “her girl along to help” confirms her total lack of concern for Mary. A black person traveling in the Deep South before the Supreme Court ruling would have been risky, but undeniably dangerous afterwards. To give her the benefit of the doubt, Pauly may not have realized the circumstances before leaving, but her ensuing nonchalance is unforgivable.

Though well acquainted with the rules in Charlotte, Jubie never feared for Mary’s safety, but the palpable hatred for her friend in Georgia and Alabama gives rise to a fear that she never knew existed. She is appalled by signs reading “Separate but equal is good for everyone” and “NEGROES Observe Curfew! WHITES Only After Sundown.” She hopes that Mary will keep snoozing, so she won’t see the hateful signs. Jim Crow laws, in effect until 1965, demanded separate lodgings, dining rooms, and bathrooms long before the Supreme Court ruling, but the motel owners so obviously resent accommodating Mary that Jubie fears leaving her alone at night.

To Jubie’s relief, the physical danger to Mary dissipates in Pensacola, but all else remains the same. The “comfortable room” that Taylor promises is a sweltering attic, and his despicable neighbor chases Mary off the beach. After Mary bakes and works all day to prepare for Taylor’s party, a guest offers to relieve her, but Pauly snarls, “Another half hour won’t kill her . . . I brought her along to help.” On the road again, Jubie’s sense of danger and determination to protect Mary return in equal measure.

That the racist and black elements will clash is certain from the first page, yet the brutality is beyond comprehension. Reactions range from smug satisfaction to cold indifference and genuine sorrow, but only Jubie takes action. With a deed daring and brave, especially for a girl so young, Jubie makes the consummate stand on the side of Mary and her peers.

That Mayhew chose this era for her first novel was no accident. She understood well the challenges of writing the story because she has always lived in North Carolina and grew up in segregated Charlotte. Though Mayhew researches diligently for her realistic settings, readers feel personally repelled by Bill and Pauly and drawn to Jubie and Mary because she writes from teenage experiences.

After the “color line” was removed from public busses, Mayhew’s parents ordered her to move if a black person sat next to her. Instead, Mayhew “felt riveted to her seat, like it would have been so rude to move.” With that small rebellion, Mayhew took a gigantic step towards becoming the author who would, thirty years later, pen a literary monument to the Marys and Jubies of the 1950s and of today’s society.

BIO: Anna Jean (A. J.) Mayhew, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, has never lived outside the state, although she often travels to Europe with her Swiss-born husband. Much of A. J.’s work reflects her vivid memories of growing up in the segregated South.

A. J. has been a member of the same writing group since 1987 and now leads two groups herself. She is a writer-in-residence at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities and a former member of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Her credits include a book of trivia about South Carolina, a guide for medical writing, and a story in Writers of the Future, Vol. 1. The Dry Grass of August, her first novel, won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction which recognizes the “year’s best book of fiction, drama, short stories, or poetry written by a North Carolinian.” She is working on her second novel, Tomorrow’s Bread.

Written by Mary Ickes