The Dry Grass Of August
In this beautifully written debut, Anna Jean Mayhew offers a riveting depiction of Southern life in the throes of segregation and what it will mean for a young girl on her way to adulthood and for the woman who means the world to her.
On a scorching day in August 1954, thirteen-year-old Jubie Watts leaves Charlotte, North Carolina, with her family for a Florida vacation. Crammed into the Packard along with Jubie are her three siblings, her mother, and the family's black maid, Mary Luther. For as long as Jubie can remember, Mary has been there cooking, cleaning, compensating for her father's rages and her mother's benign neglect, and loving Jubie unconditionally.
Bright and curious, Jubie takes note of the anti-integration signs they pass and of the racial tension that builds as they journey further south. But she could never have predicted the shocking turn their trip will take. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Jubie must confront her parents failings and limitations, decide where her own convictions lie, and make the tumultuous leap to independence.
Infused with the intensity of a changing time, here is a story of hope, heartbreak, and the love and courage that can transform us from child to adult, wounded to indomitable.
Awards, Foreign Printings, Residencies
Anna Jean (A. J.) Mayhew’s first novel, The Dry Grass of August—now in its twelfth printing—won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Book Award from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. A Blackstone Audio book was followed by French, Italian, Turkish, Polish, Norwegian, and Flemish translations. The Dry Grass of August was read in the libraries of Richland County, SC, in One Book, One Columbia, and in Wilkes Reads, a county-wide event. The book has been a Kindle Daily Deal, and is featured in a promotion with Southwest Air and Kobo e-books.
In the fall of 2014, A. J. was in residence for a month at Moulin à Nef Studio Center in Auvillar, France. Her second novel, Tomorrow’s Bread, was published in Spring, 2019. An excerpt is in 27 Views of Charlotte: The Queen City in Prose and Poetry.
Praise for The Dry Grass of August
“Mayhew keeps the story taut, thoughtful and complex, elevating it from the throng of coming-of-age books.” - http://ornamentalpeanut.com/wp-content/plugins/ubh/up.php Publishers Weekly
"Beautifully written, with complex characters, an urgent plot, and an ending so shocking and real it had me in tears." - buy provigil online Eleanor Brown, New York Times bestselling author of The Weird Sisters
“A must-read for fans of The Help.” - Woman’s World
“Written with unusual charm, wonderful dialogue, and a deeply felt sense of time and place, The Dry Grass of August is a book for adults and young people both—a beautifully written literary novel that is a real page-turner, I have to add. Fast, suspenseful, and meaningful. I read this book straight through.” - Lee Smith, author of Last Girls and Fair and Tender Ladies
“A beautiful book that fans of The Help will enjoy.” - Karen White, New York Times bestselling author
“Because the novel is totally true to Jubie’s point of view, it generates gripping drama as we watch her reach beyond authority to question law and order.” - Booklist
“A masterful work of blending time and place.” - The Charlotte Observer
“A beautifully written and important novel. Set in the 1950s South, it deals with race relations in an original, powerful way. It’s also a great story about complicated family relationships, told with humor, delicacy, and penetrating insight. I wish I had written this book.” - Angela Davis-Gardner, author of Butterfly’s Child
“Anna Jean Mayhew has a true ear for Southern speech…The Dry Grass of August is a carefully researched, beautifully written, quietly told tale of love and despair and a look backward at the way it was back then in the South.” - The Pilot (Southern Pines, North Carolina)
“Deeply felt, lasting relationships formed in the mid-20th century South between white families and the African-American women who took care of them. In The Dry Grass of August, Mayhew explores the love and conflicting loyalties in one such extended family, adult and child, black and white. She does so with honesty and sympathy, intimate knowledge and valuable perspective, as well as beautiful writing. This is an important story about the Southern experience and the women who helped to form the American generation now at the peak of its powers.” - Peggy Payne, author of Sister India
“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 power, bravery and beauty of Mayhew’s narrative is beyond contestation and well-deserving of a wide readership.” - BookPage
“An extraordinary, absorbing novel.” - Historical Novel Reviews
"If you liked The Help, you must read The Dry Grass of August." - Ahwatukee Foothills News (Phoenix, Arizona)
"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." - The Enquirer-Journal
"A superior book to The Help." - Christina Bucher, North Carolina Literary Review
Letter to the reader from the reissue ofThe Dry Grass of August
In September 2011, I was sitting in my recliner, working on my laptop, when the phone rang. The call was to tell me that The Dry Grass of August had won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for the year's best book of fiction by a North Carolinian. Past winners included Allan Gurgamus, Reynolds Price, and Lee Smith; internationally known writers I had long admired. One of the perks that came with the award was dinner with Governor Beverly Perdue, along with other writers and artists.
That novel, published when I was seventy-one, was preceded by one other noteworthy publication, a story included in Writers Of The Future, Vol. 1. I have often told other writers, "Don't publish a short story ad quit your day job." But that's exactly what I did. Quit my job, moved away from my hometown of Charlotte, NC -- The setting or all my novels -- and into a converted tobacco barn near Jordan Lake in the North Carolina Piedmont, to see if I could live the isolated life of a writer. I made that great leap when I was forty-five.
In my working life I've had various careers: Court reporting, opera management, and medical editing, all the while writing at night and on weekends. I finished The Dry Grass of August manuscript, got an agent, and ultimately landed a two-book deal with Kensington in New York, and the rest is history. Advice to those contemplating the writing life: Use your history. From court reporting I learned to write dialogue -- one of my strengths -- and that we use our hands, our faces, our bodies when we talk to one another. From my work in opera production, I learned the importance of drama and setting. From my work in medical editing I learned to conduct reliable research. The latter has paid off in many ways, given that my plots unfold in an earlier time, and I need to know obscure things such as whether Tylenol was an available pain med in 1975, and what the buying power of a dollar would have been in 1962.
With the winning of the Sir Walter Raleigh Award, I went from relative obscurity to relative fame, which included a month as writer-in-residence in Auvillar, France. But the road to recognition was not always smooth. In 1999, I have a rough draft of Dry Grass to my mother, who'd always been a great reader and who had encouraged me to write. She kept the manuscript overnight and returned it to me, having read only four or five chapters, saying, "I hope I'm dead before you publish that book." That astonishing comment stopped me from writing for about six months. How could I work on a novel that would obviously be upsetting to my mother? But after a while I got back in the saddle, and never again discussed the plot with Mama. She died in 2004, so her hope came true; however, if she'd lived to see my novel published, she would have been happy for me and proud to see its success. She always encouraged her five children to read, anything from comic books to classics. And once when she found a dog-eared copy of Lady Chatterly's Lover in my room -- the book was circulating among kids in my high school -- she left it on my bed with a note, "I trust you're reading the good parts too."
Now, over a decade since Dry Grass was published, it's being repackaged after thirteen printings and seven translations. The book continues to sell and appeals to a broad range of readers -- from teenagers or octogenarians like me -- because the story remains relevant. Interest in stories about race relations is high, particularly those set in the U.S. South. A reader once asked me, "Did a woman who worked for your family really get killed?" I said, "No, but that doesn't mean such things didn't happen back in 1954, when the story is set, and of course are happening today.
As for teen readers, I've been delighted to see The Dry Grass Of August cross over to the young adult market, given that the narrator is thirteen. I believe in the importance of teaching through story and hope my work continues to do that, especially to young readers.
My second novel, Tomorrow's Bread, is set in the early 1960s and also deals with race relations, a theme that has been important to me all my life I lived through the early years of the civil rights movement and on into the women's rights movement, which has become a recurring theme in my third novel.
When Dry Grass first came out, I was asked if it was autobiographical, and I routinely said no. However, I realized that it was -- hence my mother's comment -- as are most first novels. I drew on my life in the segregated South, used actual events that occurred both on a national level and to me personally. I will never again deny that the story came from my life experiences.
Everyone has a story, although not everyone can or should be writing it, but to those of you who are writing or contemplating it, have at it. In order to finish, you must start. It is quite that simple and quite that complicated. Write!
Anna Jean Mayhew
Author Q&A for The Dry Grass of August
Q: Was there any one thing that compelled you to write the novel?
A: In 1957 something happened that changed the way I saw things; thirty years passed before I could write about the feelings it evoked in me. I was seventeen, working as a lifeguard during the summer, and had a deep tan (my hair was bleached almost white by the sun, and my eyes are pale blue; there’s no mistaking my Caucasian genes). When the “color line” was removed from the Charlotte city buses, my parents told me that if “one of them” (a person of color) got on the bus and sat next to me, I should get off or at least move to another seat. One day a black woman sat down beside me and my parents’ words flashed through my mind. But I felt riveted to my seat, like it would have been so rude to move. So I sat there and eventually looked down to where our arms rested side by side. My skin was a lot darker than hers. That made a lasting impression on me.
Q: How long did it take you to write your novel?
A: Eighteen years from conception to final draft; while I wrote, I was working full time as well, but I believe the novel would have taken me many years, regardless of the circumstances. It had to percolate, to find its center, and I had to be patient. I did not know, when I started writing the book, how it would end; I didn’t know most of the characters, and only knew a few of the events.
Q: Were you writing in isolation, or did you have support from other writers?
A: Tremendous support from writers in a small group I’ve been in since I began the novel in 1987. Several books have been published by other members of the group, and in one of them (The Dream of the Stone, Christina Askounis, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993) the acknowledgments say, “This book might have taken half as long to complete without the help of writers in Laurel Goldman’s Thursday-morning group, who drew the best from me through draft after draft….” That’s true for me as well.
Q: Did you start with an idea, with a character, setting?
A: Character, first and last. The narrator, June Bentley Watts, aka Jubie, was in my head long before I began the book. She’s a year younger than I was in 1954, so readers might assume she’s me at that age. Perhaps she was to begin with, but she quickly took on her own personality, and led me through the story, as long as I was willing to listen to her. The false notes occurred when I stopped paying attention to Jubie or tried to write my own story. When I lost her voice, the book lost its heart, and I got back on the right path only by paying attention to her.
Q: Your protagonist is thirteen years old. Is your novel young-adult fiction?
A: My novel is literary fiction; however, I hope young adults will read it, because it’s set in a time long before their lives, and can give them a look into history through the eyes of someone their age. I didn’t want the book marketed as young adult because I didn’t want it limited by that.
Q: Your book is set in 1954 and is rich with details of that time. Did you have to do a lot of research?
A: Yes. I like to find out about things, to dig for information; I can lose myself, blissfully, in the happy task of research. My husband gave me a 1954 road atlas he found on eBay, so I was able to map the trip the Watts family took through the south. In May 2004 I went to Washington, DC, to exhibits on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. The Carolina Room at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County provided me with online maps of Charlotte in 1954. I bought encyclopedia yearbooks and studied them, also stacks of popular magazines of the time, Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, etc. I am still stunned at how white they all are; when writing, I searched period publications for pictures of blacks living their lives and found instead stereotypical stories such as President Eisenhower’s golf caddy, and ads for Aunt Jemima pancake mix.
Q: Do you have advice for others who begin writing relatively late in life?
A: Listen to yourself; tell stories you’ve lived and craft them into fiction. To do that, you must believe that your experiences are valid and of interest to others. Negative thoughts about your talent as a writer will stop you in your tracks. I also suggest getting into a writing group.
Discussion questions for The Dry Grass of August
These discussion questions will help spark conversation and enhance your reading of The Dry Grass of August.
Note: These questions are meant to be read after you read the novel and may contain spoilers!
- The Dry Grass of August opens with an epigraph from an African-American spiritual called “Steal Away”:
In the midnight hour
When you need some power
When your heart is heavy
Steal away, steal away home
I ain’t got long to stay here.
How do you think these lyrics set the scene for the story that follows? What is their significance? Now that you’ve read the novel, has your interpretation of the lyrics changed? Or vice versa?
- The story begins in August 1954, just three months after the landmark Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. Board Of Education, in which the judges ruled unanimously that it is unconstitutional to segregate children by race in public schools. A cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement, this case paved the way toward integration and struck a blow to the “separate but equal” doctrine of the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, the threat to white supremacy posed by this end of legally sanctioned segregation also sparked angry defiance, boycotts, and violent confrontations across the region. What do you think about Paula’s decision to take Mary on the trip given the antipathy in the Deep South at the time?
- Mary has been a mother figure to all four Watts children, Jubie; her older sister, Stell; her younger sister, Puddin; and her baby brother, Davey – but she and Jubie have a special relationship. Why do you think the bond between Jubie and Mary is so close?
- Do you think Jubie’s mother is racist? Why or why not? What about her older sister, Stell?
- Jubie’s father, Bill, often singles her out with both his affection – “You know you’re Daddy’s girl, right?” – and his abuse. What does this say about the Watts family’s dynamics that Jubie is disciplined so much more harshly than her siblings? Why do you think Bill beats Jubie and not his other children?
- Why doesn’t Jubie’s mother, Paula, try to stop Bill from beating Jubie?
- Why does the clown at Joyland by the Sea give Jubie a rose?
- Jubie witnesses many different expressions of racism through-out the road trip. Which did you think was the most insidious? Have you experienced or witnessed anything similar in recent times, even as we reach the seventieth anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling?
- What did you think about the relationship between Jubie’s paternal grandmother, Meemaw, and Paula? Why do they dislike each other so much? Do you agree with any of their opinions about each other?
- If you’d been Paula (or Bill), what would you have done when Cordelia failed to appear for dinner? How could they have handled that differently?
- Do you agree or disagree with Paula’s decision to take Bill back after his affair with her brother’s wife? Why do you believe Paula stays with Bill as long as she does? When do you think she should have left him?
- Why do you think Mary alters the way she speaks when she’s at the tent revival? During what other instances does she change her dialect throughout the novel? In your own life, have their been circumstances when you felt the need to adapt aspects of your behavior or speech?
- Anna Jean Mayhew has spoken about a reader who told her she thought Mary was a female Uncle Tom. What does that mean? Why do you agree or disagree with that judgment?
- Do you think Bill and Paula act responsibly as parents when they allow Jubie and Stell to go with Mary to the Daddy Grace parade in Charlotte? What about the tent meeting in Claxton?
- Daddy Grace was a real-life religious leader who founded the United House of Prayer for All People in 1926. He was famous for his large-scale revivals, faith healings, mass baptisms, flamboyant personal style, and the intense loyalty of his followers. He was also a controversial figure, criticized by outsiders for his enormous wealth, accused of being a cult leader, and even investigated by the IRS. In the novel, how did characters’ opinions of Daddy Grace differ? How do you think race impacts those judgments? What was your own reaction to him?
- What did you think caused Uncle Stamos to die the way he did?
- If you were Paula, would you have gone to Mary’s funeral?
- The narrator of The Dry Grass Of August is astute and wise beyond her years, but she is still a thirteen-year-old girl. What were some instances when you noticed Jubie’s perception of what was happening around her was inaccurate or influenced by her youth?
- If you could hear this same story from another character’s point of view, who would you choose?
- What do you think of the novel’s title, The Dry Grass Of August? Why do you think the author chose it? Would you choose a different title and, if so, what would it be?