At last, the answer for people who want to read about race relations in the ’50s in the U.S. but who found Stockett’s The Help sadly lacking.
The Dry Grass of August has a reasonably straightforward plot: thirteen-year old Jubie Watts, her three siblings, their mother and the family’s (black) maid set off on a vacation, driving from Charlotte, North Carolina to Florida. Not surprisingly, as the family and their maid travel farther south, segregation becomes more common and less easily evaded; the maid cannot eat with the family, nor can she stay in the same room with them in the motels much less use the same bathrooms–instead she must eat at ‘Negro’ restaurants, sleep in separate cabins (often without indoor plumbing), use the outhouses hidden off in the woods, and so on. This trip culminates, so to speak, with Mary’s abduction at the hands of a group of white men determined to have their way with her; she is found dead in a field a few days later and the local police force close the case with simply “dead by causes unknown”. The family does pay to ship Mary’s body home, but only Jubie attends the funeral and that without her parents’ permission.
The Dry Grass of August is no feel good book, like The Help. Things are changing far more rapidly than the whites would have them do–the ink is barely dry on Brown v. Board of Education when the pivotal events in the book take place–but for the time being there’s no chance of friendship between the blacks and the whites, however much they may wish it. Mayhew does not candy coat the relationship between Mary and the white family which employs her; there may be genuine affection between the maid and the children she cares for but in the long run it’s an employer/employee relationship, and one with a cultural gulf separating the two. Stella, the older sister, mentions this in a conversation about the propriety of attending Mary’s funeral:
“Stell? Don’t you want to go to Mary’s funeral?”
“Then why aren’t we going?”
“Mama and Daddy want things back to normal. For us to get over it.” Stell moved her hands on the steering wheel. “Besides, I’m not sure her family wants us there.”
“She was working for us when she died.”
“But she was our friend.”
“We paid her to be.”
Overall, I think Mayhew gives a better idea than Stockett did of just how widespread the segregation and prejudice was in the South, how institutionalized and ingrained it was; both were there in The Help, to be sure, but seemed more a matter of personal opinion and things that happen to other people. Mayhew turned it into something that happens to us. There’s not quite enough character development in The Dry Grass of August to make this a truly brilliant novel–the white characters are a bit too close to cardboard cutout stereotypes for this to be Great Literature. The ending’s rushed: though there were hints about the parents’ breakup throughout the novel, the father’s crooked business dealings seemed unnecessary to me. We know the father’s a nasty man already, and his comeuppance seems merely tacked on, no matter how richly he deserved it. It would have been enough to end with the family’s reaction to Jubie’s arrival home after attending Mary’s funeral.
None of this is new in the United States, nor is it entirely over; segregation may not be as common sixty years after this book was set but it’s still there, unspoken. It’s no longer legal to have a ‘sundowner town’, or separate waiting rooms, restaurants and bathrooms, but there’s still more cultural separation than many whites realize. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Not unusual. What to read next? Try Alex Kotlowitz’ The Other Side of the River; he describes reasonably accurately the race relationships between two neighboring towns in Michigan–one primarily Caucasian and another equally predominantly African American–and sadly, not nearly as much has changed in the intervening forty years as should have…
1though that alone is quite enough!