When a new novel gets compared to some of the biggest hits of the last 10 years like The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, its author has some awfully big shoes to fill. Throw in comparisons to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the stakes are raised so high that readers may be skeptical that any book could be so good. Reading is believing, however, and once you’ve experienced The Dry Grass of August, you’ll swiftly see that Anna Jean Mayhew’s debut novel deserves all the early praise it’s getting.
The Dry Grass of August tells the story of Jubie Watts, who gains wisdom beyond her 13 years of life during the summer of 1954. Along with their colored maid Mary, the Watts family takes a road trip down to Florida, looking for the chance to escape from the pressures of day-to-day life in North Carolina. Alas, as the trip progresses, it gets harder to ignore the color of Mary’s skin. In the wake of a violent and hateful crime, Jubie is exposed to injustice and intolerance of which she had been blissfully unaware, and hairline cracks in the Watts family shatter open, bringing shameful secrets to light. For Jubie, nothing will ever be easy again, and she learns that growing up means seeing the world beyond basic black and white.
If the best authors are the ones who write what they know, then Mayhew clearly used her own experiences to great advantage. A lifelong native of North Carolina, Mayhew spent her girlhood in Charlotte during the 1950s and witnessed firsthand the upheaval and conflict of racial segregation and integration. Jubie’s story thrums with a provocative authenticity, and even the most stolid reader is sure to respond to this heartbreaking tale of lost innocence. Although revisiting such a fraught yet recent moment in U.S. history produces moments of discomfort and pain, the power, bravery and beauty of Mayhew’s narrative is beyond contestation and well-deserving of a wide readership.