Thursday, April 12, 2012
I'm always wary when I'm ordering a book online and before checkout, up pops a list of other books: "If you liked __________, you'll like ___________. When I first heard about Anna Jean Mayhew's Dry Grass of August, I was told, "It's better than The Help."
Since the book came recommended by a friend whose literary taste I trust, I decided to give it a chance to stand on its own. I'm glad I did.
The author Anna Jean Mayhew has the distinction of publishing a first novel at age 71, encouraging to anyone who still hasn't managed to finish that first book. The story begins in Charlotte in the fifties and moves through Georgia to Florida and back as the young narrator Jubie Watts goes with her mother, her siblings, and their maid Mary to vacation in Florida with her mother's brother then toward the Atlantic coast.
Jubie, the middle daughter, may at times serve as a naive narrator, but she has a keen enough eye to see through family secrets and human ironies. Mary, her mother's "girl," is a most dignified character, working for the family that knows so little about her other life as a mother, a widow, a church member. As they travel through pre-Civil Rights Georgia, the family feels the edge of threat, especially entering town limits with signs warning that blacks are not allowed at certain times of night.
Jubie is aware of the inequities that relegate where Mary can and cannot sleep, use the bathroom, or wade into the ocean. Told from her perspective, the novel reminds me more of Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childers than of The Help. Both certainly examine the wrongs of racism and segregation, but like Crazy in Alabama, this novel's young protagonist has less power to change events, despite her awareness of the wrong in the current racial climate.
An underlying plot line, too, involves Jubie's father, a successful business man in town, in partnership with his brother, who has been skimping on quality in order to channel more financial support toward a shady organization of "White Businessmen." The effects of his apparent alcoholism, particularly the resulting physical mistreatment of Jubie, underscore his lack of ethics and morality.
The turn of events in the story are more violent, and in some ways more tragic than those of The Help. The Medgar Evans story plays a more minor role in Stockett's book, while the tragedy at the center of The Dry Grass of August strikes the center of the Watts home and the community. Like The Help, this novel offers a perfect opportunity for people of different races to sit down together and work through discomfort to discuss issues of the past that color relationship still today. Mayhew has given the reader characters that avoid stereotypes and has ended on a hopeful note without being trite or simplistic.