“…‘The Dry Grass of August’ is a superior book to ‘The Help,’ even if it doesn’t sell three million copies.”
So writes Christina Bucher in the North Carolina Literary Review about “The Dry Grass of August.” Hillsborough’s Anna Jean Mayhew takes us all the way back to the racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and a poignant story of a young girl in a family under stress, being pulled apart by forces the girl does not understand. It is a story, in Lee Smith’s words, that is “written with unusual charm, wonderful dialogue, and a deeply felt sense of time and place.”
More about that story later, but the story of Mayhew’s writing life is also worth telling. She was well past her seventieth birthday when “Dry Grass,” her first novel was published. The book was almost 20 years in the writing. A supportive writing group read Mayhew’s drafts and redrafts, giving her the encouragement and support to keep going.
“Dry Grass” was a surprise best-seller and continues to benefit from favorable critical attention and word of mouth recommendations. It won for Mayhew the prestigious Sir Walter Raleigh Award, established in 1952 and given by the Historical Book Club of North Carolina each year to the North Carolina writer who published the work of fiction judged the best.
In making the award, Nan Kester, president of the book club, explained how Mayhew’s life experience conditioned her for literary success, saying that her “past career experiences equipped her with skills that prepared her for writing, her fourth career. She was a court reporter which gave her invaluable insights into speech patterns and dialect, bringing truth to the dialogue in her fiction, opera management which taught her the importance of plot and flair for the dramatic production, editor of a major medical journal gave her the research skills necessary to validate the historical facts in her fiction set in the 1950’s and ’60s.”
The novel’s story begins in the Myers Park neighborhood where Mayhew grew up. The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision putting an end to legal segregation in public schools has stirred up a hornets’ nest of racist reactions throughout the white community.
Meanwhile 13-year-old Jubie Watts is deeply attached to Mary Luther, Jubie’s family’s African American servant. Jubie bristles at the indignities that Mary Luther suffers, ill-treatment from Jubie’s parents and guests, always riding in the back seat of the car, and not being allowed to eat or sleep in the same facilities as the family on trips. Meanwhile Jubie’s dad is active in a White Business organization that uses its employment power to take jobs from blacks who try to vote or otherwise challenge the white dominant system.
Jubie adores Mary Luther and that affection is returned as loving discipline and support that Jubie craves. With very little positive attention from her troubled mother and father, Jubie needs all the help she can get.
With her look back at a racial and cultural society in transition, Mayhew also delivers a coming of age novel that will touch readers’ hearts. Then she serves up a tragic moment that will give those same hearts a hurt that will be long remembered.
Continuing her comparison with “The Help,” reviewer Bucher says that “The Dry Grass of August” and Minrose Guin’s “stunning debut novel,” “The Queen of Palmyra,” “offer a more nuanced view of this complicated, troublesome time in the not-so-distant past, when it was debatable the ‘dreams of the Good’ would—or could—prevail over the ‘killers of the dream.’”