This novel is narrated by thirteen-year-old Jubie Watts in the 1950s South, circa Brown v. Board of Education. The Watts family is mired in dysfunction: William, a womanizing, alcoholic husband; Paula, his beautiful wife; four children; and the “colored girl” who tends to the family’s needs. Mary serves as the emotional foundation for a family filled with spousal recriminations, Paula throwing parties to distract herself from her marital woes. As mother and children begin a driving trip from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Pensacola, Florida, Mary sits unobtrusively in the backseat of the family Packard, expected to fade away when they stop for the night at motels that offer no accommodations for coloreds. For the first time, Jubie realizes the extent of the limitations placed on Mary for her race, the insults she endures and the less-than-habitable quarters she is expected to use.
Ironically, it is in Florida and not North Carolina where tragedy strikes, Mary the victim of ignorance and racism that is not only tolerated but ignored, a woman caught with two of her young white charges and nowhere to run. The scene is all too familiar, shocking and brutal. Jubie forgetts about her parents’ squabbles as she tries to make sense of the violence that has changed her world.
Honestly, I found it difficult to write this review: one more coming-of-age story about a white girl in the South and her gradual questioning of societal mores. Certainly, the family dysfunction is difficult for the narrator, Mary perhaps all the more important because Jubie relies on her for emotional support and recognition. But really, who cares if one more white girl gets it?
The solid, unassuming Mary is invisible to the family, relegated to non-existence when not in their immediate sphere, though she has a rich, full life in her church and community, many friends and two proud children. The inevitability of Mary’s tragedy is disturbing, as is the reactions of authorities. That this outrage becomes grist for Jubie’s awakening bothers me, smacking of exploitation for the sake of plot. Mary is dead and buried with much love by her community, with only Jubie in attendance for the white folks. The novel focuses on the events that occur post-Mary-as-maid, including William Watts’ support of a businessmen’s group promoting segregation.
This novel is written in a style that suggests a young adult audience, but Mary’s fate is so vile and hurtful that a parent should consider the appropriateness of this story as an introduction to racism for teens. It is almost too disturbing, and I am by no means naïve. I was so outraged after Mary’s assault that I could barely concentrate on Jubie’s rebellion against her family’s entrenched denial. Racism is pervasive, familiar and corrosive, the soul of a nation corrupted by an institutionalized blight. Mayhew writes from Jubie’s adolescent perspective, her prose limited by the girl’s lack of years and sophistication. Not quite adult, not quite young adult, this is a tough call. I didn’t feel enlightened afterward, but angry and frustrated.