AJ Mayhew

February 16-19, 2012
Hoover Public Library, Hoover (AL)

Introduction of Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August

by Elaine W. Hughes, Ph.D., Faculty Emerita, University of Montevallo, Montevallo, AL

Anna Jean Mayhew's debut novel, The Dry Grass of August, is an amazing book. Released last summer, the novel has received praise from celebrated writers and has earned comparisons to some of the best—Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Katherine Stockett's The Help. Told by a 13-year-old narrator, the novel is not only a coming-of-age story but also a depiction of the complex society of the segregated South of the 1950s, where blacks and whites co-existed in allegedly "separate but equal" worlds—where civility ruled in daily routines filled with discrimination and degradation and where violence and hatred lurked just below the surface of that civility.

A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Mayhew draws on her roots and her experiences growing up in this conflicted South. Her narrator, Jubie Watts, conveys the innocence of many young white girls of that era whose privileged status protected them from the realities of their world, but her story also sensitively reveals the tensions within a family—sibling relationships and jealousies, parental flaws and infidelities—and the growing uncertainty within a child rapidly becoming a young woman. Jubie's family vacation trip from Charlotte, NC, to Pensacola, Florida, with her mother, her two sisters and baby brother, and Mary, their maid, becomes that mythic journey from childhood innocence to adulthood. As they travel deeper and deeper into the darkness of that segregated world, where Mary is denied access to restaurants, to motel accommodations, and to public restrooms ("Those are for Whites Only"), Jubie begins to realize the hypocrisy of her "civilized" world. Her delusions and illusions are destroyed by a tragic turn of events that propels her into a world she does not want.

The Dry Grass of August is one of those rare novels that strike a chord in readers. Perhaps this is especially true of the readers who lived through that time and experienced the same kinds of things Mayhew's narrator does. I, too, was a 13-year-old in 1954, when Brown vs. the Board of Education changed the nation; I, too, learned about the inequity in "separate but equal" when my father, city councilman, pioneered the construction of a municipal pool in our town but at the same time dutifully built a dirt basketball court for the colored residents. Mayhew's depiction of this past society does much what Eudora Welty's writing process does: Welty says she found her topics for her writing as she spiraled downward through her memories and each layer revealed another memory. Reading The Dry Grass of August does the same: as the reader recognizes the images, hears the words of those characters, and discovers the painful truths about that segregated society, the experiences are real again.

Mayhew's gift for storytelling has earned her the 2011 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for her outstanding first novel. Join me in welcoming to Southern Voices Anna Jean Mayhew.