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A timely coming of age story!

The Dry Grass of August - Jean Anna Mayhew

The story begins in 1954. The Watts are a fairly comfortable and well respected family living in Charlotte, North Carolina. William Watts stays behind as his wife, Paula, his children Jubie, Stell, Puddin, Davey and the maid, Mary, leave in their Packard and drive off for a vacation at the home of Paula’s brother. As they travel south, 14 year old Jubie (June Watts), becomes more and more aware that the maid, Mary Luther, is not welcome in many places, and actually, although they professed to have separate but equal facilities for whites and blacks, that was definitely far from the truth.

However, the trip to the shore goes fairly smoothly. They have a pleasant stay and for diverse reasons, are all sad when it is time to leave. On their return, an automobile accident delays them; from that point on, succeeding events alter the way they live their lives. Racism is an accepted mode of behavior in many places in the south, in those days, and the family is forced to confront it. Each of them deals with the bigotry and its effects in their own way. Often, in those times, and in many places, law enforcement looked askance at the white perpetrators of crimes and ignored the victims when the victims were non-white. The wheels of justice ground very slowly in those instances and remnants of that kind of injustice still exist today in many cities around the United States.

The racism exhibited in this story is a bit horrifying, but, nevertheless, it is a pretty fair and honest description of the race relations of that time. The author has perfectly captured the tension that existed between the races, the arrogance of the whites who felt superior and the deference shown by blacks toward them because of their lack of power.

In the north, many were naïve and largely ignorant about the behavior of the southern whites toward the blacks. In the north, they did not have separate facilities. There were no signs that said blacks had to board buses last or move to the back, schools and families did not discuss race relations since the prejudice existed beneath the surface. It was much more subtle, but it was alive and well there too.

Although the whites for sure had more power and openly displayed their discrimination, there also existed a counterpart of racial bias against whites among the blacks, although it was not as effective because of their lack of power and support. While the Watts family was going through their traumatic situation in Georgia, another debacle was seeding itself in North Carolina, since Mr. Watts was not only a brute and a drunk, he was a racist, somewhat of a womanizer, and honesty was not his strong suit.

Jubie describes her father as someone she loves, but also as someone who is abusive and quite rough around the edges. He drinks to excess and seems to make up his own rules as he goes along. Jubie’s mom Paula, was like most women of that time. She deferred to her husband who made the rules, made the decisions, paid the bills and controlled the home and lifestyle; and Paula had a nice lifestyle. She had her own home, a maid, cars, a country club membership and committee meetings to attend. Her husband had his own business which he operated with his brother. She spent her time socializing, paying little attention to what her husband was doing. She simply reaped the benefits of his effort without giving it another thought. In short, she lived a charmed life, never dreaming they would fall from grace.

As Jubie relates the story, the timeline moves back and forth to lay the groundwork for what transpires during their travels. There seems to be a fine line between prejudice and tolerance with both sides exhibiting bias toward each other, albeit the white representation is a much more violent one. Jubie is a horse of a different color. She is open-minded and truly loves Mary, regardless of her color. There is mutual respect in their relationship which is warm and accepting. Jubie seems to be brighter and more willing to confront the world than most girls her age would be. She represents the future.

The white people of her parent’s generation are portrayed as rather ignorant, selfish, inconsiderate and lacking in faith, worshiping money rather than a higher authority, while black people are law abiding, religious, and loyal, believing in a higher authority, always taking the higher road to the white peoples’ lower one. The older white race is representative of the past.

The story is a coming of age story for both Jubie and her mother. Paula must begin to see the world without her rose colored glasses and grow more independent. Jubie must face the frailties of her parents and their generation and mature prematurely. In the short interval in which the story takes place, both mother and daughter are forced to confront issues and deal with them autonomously. Both rise to the task.