Updated: Aug 25, 2019
The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew
Hello book lovers! I feel very guilty, as it has been a long time since posting. I took a lovely break and traveled to some very beautiful places, and all around this summer has been wonderful.
I took advantage of my time off to read - never as much as I would like, of course, but it was still amazing to occasionally sit down and actually read, something that isn't always obvious when you have two small children. Sometimes I even read in the sun - once, a hammock was involved. Bliss!
Now that I've just finished praising some of the truly wonderful things about summer, let me share with you a rather unpopular opinion ... I don't really like the month of August. I mean, I'll take it, sure. But in comparison to the innocence and hope of spring, the optimism in June when the temperatures start to soar, the pure joy that is July ... August is actually kind of creepy.
Hear me out. At this point in the summer, we've started to simmer for a bit too long. After all this heat, these days of lazy nothings, we begin to seek respite from the oppressiveness of August. The days are shortening, and yet they seem to stagnant, like fat sticky flies. It is the rot inside the sweetness of overripe fruit. And so it is the perfect backdrop to The Dry Grass of August, a luscious book which seeks out the rot inside the picture perfect family in the 1950s in southern USA. This is a book about injustice, loss of innocence, but most of all this simmering hatred that permeated the country at the time. This book may have been set in 1954, but some of the racist rhetoric can still be found in this day and age and that, my dear friends, might be the creepiest thing of all.
The story centres around thirteen-year-old Jubie Watts, and her family as they go on vacation to Florida, along with their "girl" Mary Luther, who acts as not only maid and cook, but also as replacement mother to Jubie. As they pass further south, the sentiment becomes more and more hostile towards Mary, until things reach a snapping point and everything unravels.
One of the things I like the most is the obvious love between Jubie and Mary. Jubie is ignored by her mother and beaten by her father, and Mary is happy to step in to give the girl some of the affection and support she so desperately needs. Jubie is bright and curious, constantly noting the plethora of unfairnesses large and small heaped on her idol, the one person who doesn't hurt her, and she vows to do things differently. I love how surprised Jubie is every time she sees Mary out of context as a member of her family - when Mary is going on about her life, she is not a "girl" she is a forty-something badass, a mother, a member of her community. At thirteen, Jubie is just starting to realize how much bigger Mary's world is than her job.
In some ways, The Dry Grass of August is like The Help, as it is from a young white woman's perspective on the racial situation in America in the 50s or 60s. But scratch the surface and the comparisons fall apart. Where there was joy and compassion found in The Help, in the The Dry Grass there is a creeping sense of dread as the book builds in suspense, then breaks out into full-fledged horror.
The book is set in the American south right after the Brown v. Board of Education case, and there was a riot of racism and outright violence against people of colour happening at the time. In hindsight, the Watts family should never have brought Mary with them to such a dangerous place. They struggled to find places that would allow them to stay in the same building, Mary often being forced to sleep in a shack in the woods. The casual cruelties heaped upon her are taken with great dignity, and I have to say that Mary Luther may be one of my favourite literary characters ever. She is the epitome of quiet strength and grace, and there is no wonder Jubie looks up to her.
Now we can look at the state of America in the 1950s and scoff that things will never be that backwards again ... and yet. Things are going pretty effing sideways right now, and I'm not sure things are going to get back in the right direction. I think that books like Dry Grass are incredibly important to remind us what is at stake when we allow institutionalized racism to continue - and become even more prevalent.
It should be said as well that not all violence in the book is racially motivated. The book begins just after some pretty horrific domestic abuse, and the lack of caring that Jubie receives from her family is shocking. It is plain her father has claimed her specifically as the target of his alcohol-fueled rage, and yet the rest of her family barely blinks at the terrifying beatings. Mary compensates for things by singling Jubie out for her affection, and Jubie blossoms under her attention.
After the horrifying incident in the south, nobody knows what to do or how to act. Jubie, who has been continuously failed by her parents her entire life, is failed by them once again. This time, though, she doesn't accept their meek dismissal of events. Even at thirteen, Jubie gains a sense of independence and courage, facing down her family's rage by doing the right thing. It does offer the reader a sense of relief: for all that she has suffered, you know that Jubie is going to be okay. She is not going to buy in to the state-accepted racism and cruelty, and she is going to do things better. She acts on her well-established sense of justice, which was fully encouraged and developed by Mary.
The Dry Grass of August is heartbreaking and yet ends with a feeling of eventual hope, like there might be a movement towards something better. I can only hope that books like these allow people to think and discuss where America used to be, and whether it wants to really go back to those times. Because truly, for no one was this the "good old days."