Race in America, and The Dry Grass of August

Today’s blog post highlights the first paragraph of The Dry Grass of August, Anna Jean Mayhew’s debut novel. That paragraph is a great hook, for it draws you in and conveys that there’s bound to be a good story in the coming pages. Here it is:

“In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about. It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair. But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead. And Mary would still be with us.” ~ Anna Jean Mayhew in The Dry Grass of August

DryGrass
The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August is a novel that takes you to the American South in the days of  lawfully-mandated racial segregation. It is written from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old white girl from Charlotte, North Carolina. It sheds light on how it was in the 1950s for a black maid, Mary Luther, traveling from North Carolina to Florida with her white employer, Mrs. Watts, and the four Watts children. Mary couldn’t eat in restaurants, couldn’t sleep in motels, and couldn’t use public bathrooms because they were the legal domain of white people.

Mary Luther is in constant but often subtle danger. She was, no doubt, apprehensive and in danger even when the members of the white family she was riding with were unaware. That unawareness is today referred to as “white privilege.” When one lives his entire life as a member of the predominant and ruling race, he enjoys privileges and advantages of which he isn’t even conscious.

The Watts children witness things along the way to Florida that open their eyes to how differently whites and blacks are treated in the United States. They cannot return home to Charlotte unchanged.

In light of the August 12, 2017 violence

I chose the opening paragraph of The Dry Grass of August as my blog topic for today many weeks ago. When I selected it and put it on my blog schedule, I had no idea I would be writing it in the aftermath of the tragedy in Virginia of last weekend. I did not anticipate writing a 1,000-word blog post around that paragraph.

Although published in 2011, The Dry Grass of August speaks to us today as, in light of the murder of Heather Heyer and other violence in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, Americans are having a conversation like never before about race relations. That conversation is long overdue and painful. It will not and cannot be a short conversation.

For all the progress that has been made between the races in my 64 years, it is abhorrent and repulsive to me that in 2017 there are Ku Klux Klan members, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazis not only living among us but being emboldened by the words, actions, and inactions of President Donald J. Trump. It is Mr. Trump’s lack of moral leadership that has added fuel to the fire and given bigots a green light to publicly spew their hate.

I had hoped to keep politics out of my blog, but I cannot remain silent. This is bigger than politics. This is morals and humanity and freedom. Freedom to live without fear. My blog is not a huge platform, but it does give me an avenue through which to speak. My blog has 1,300 followers from all over the world. I don’t want my blog followers in other countries to think Americans are vicious and at each other’s throats. That is not who we are.

Whereas the people who doggedly hung onto the myth that white people were a superior race used to cowardly hide their faces and identities under white hoods and robes, they now demonstrate and march with torches in regular street clothes. When they marched in Charlottesville last weekend, some of them were outfitted with helmets and shields, making it difficult for the anti-Nazi protesters to tell the difference between police officers and the white supremacists.

There is no room in the United States of America for Neo-Nazis and other hate mongers. The good citizens of this country cannot allow the current occupant of the White House to lead us down this destructive road by his lame condemnation of evil and his attempt to equate the people carrying Nazi flags with the people who were there to protest their hateful agenda.

Three of the founding pillars of the United States are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble. I’m glad I live in a country where people can voice their opinions; however, no American has the constitutional right to threaten, terrorize, or murder other people simply because of the color of their skin or the way they choose to worship God.

The United States is in a watershed moment. We will come out a better people on the other side of the current self-examination and soul searching because we are a good and decent people. We are not who Mr. Trump would try to make you think we are. We are so much better than that.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have a good book to read while you write your next good book.

Janet

 

Early X-ray and a Thimble

Did you know that a girl from the Rocky River community in Cabarrus County, North Carolina was the first person whose life was saved in the United States with the aid of the X-ray? Today’s blog post is an edited version of a local history newspaper column I wrote in 2006 for Harrisburg Horizons, a short-lived weekly newspaper. I usually blog about writing fiction, but this is an example of my nonfiction writing.

Discovery of the X-ray

Just three months after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen of Bavaria discovered the X-ray, a scientist from Davidson, North Carolina used it in a Rocky River home to help save Ellen Harris’ life. It was a February day in 1896.

Dr. Henry Louis Smith of Davidson read about Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray. He went to Dr. J.P. Munroe’s laboratory in the small medical school on the campus of Davidson College. The laboratory had the same equipment as that used by Mr. Roentgen.

Dr. Smith fired a bullet into the palm of a corpse’s hand. He then made a successful X-ray of the hand.

Ellen Harris Swallows Thimble

Soon thereafter, Mr. and Mrs. William Edwin Harris’ twelve-year-old daughter, Ellen, swallowed a tailor’s thimble. The open-ended thimble lodged in her throat and made it increasingly difficult for her to breathe or eat over the following days.

Tailor's Thimble
Tailor’s Thimble

Area physicians did not agree on a diagnosis. Three doctors thought she coughed up the thimble and damaged her throat in the process. One doctor speculated that the thimble hurt her throat as it passed to her stomach. Only one of the five doctors consulted thought the thimble was still in Ellen’s throat.

A man in Charlotte, the largest town in the area, told Dr. Smith about Ellen’s predicament. Dr. Smith asked the man to convey to Ellen’s parents his willingness to help them.

Ellen’s frantic father and mother believed that Dr. Smith could help their daughter. Mr. Harris traveled to Davidson in a wagon (a distance of about 30 miles — perhaps more in those days) and brought Dr. Smith and his X-ray equipment to his home near Rocky River Presbyterian Church on Rocky River Road.

Mr. and Mrs. Harris placed Ellen on a sheet fashioned into a hammock. Dr. Smith set up his crude X-ray apparatus. A large and heavy battery and induction coil powered the equipment.

According to a letter that Dr. Smith wrote to Dr. Robert M. Lafferty, he crouched on the floor under the girl. After an hour’s work with a fluoroscope, he got a fleeting glimpse of the thimble in the child’s windpipe. There was no lasting image on film like in X-rays today.

Dr. Smith returned to Davidson and the Harris family set out for a hospital in Charlotte. The doctors there refused to operate on Ellen. They wanted to see exactly where the thimble rested before they made an incision.

The Charlotte surgeons wired Dr. Smith their concerns. Surgery was Ellen’s only hope for survival. Without knowing the exact location of the thimble, though, the surgeons feared they would lose their patient on the operating table.

Dr. Smith immediately brought his X-ray equipment from Davidson to the hospital. Once more, the apparatus pinpointed the location of the thimble in Ellen’s trachea. The image paved the way for the operation.

The surgeons soon discovered that Ellen’s flesh partially grew over the rusting thimble. This made the thimble’s removal difficult and challenging. The arduous two-hour surgery saved Ellen’s life and put the Rocky River community on the medical history map!

My sources:

Early Medicine in Cabarrus, primary data collected by Eugenia W. Lore and edited by Jane Harris Nierenberg, 1990.  (Includes newspaper articles from The Concord Tribune, November 9, 1945, and December 10, 1945.)

Open the Gate and Roam Cabarrus With Us, by Adelaide and Eugenia Lore, 1971.

The Historic Architecture of Cabarrus County, North Carolina, by Peter R. Kaplan, 1981.

Hornets’ Nest:  The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, by LeGette Blythe and Charles R. Brockmann, 1961.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. (I finished Right Behind You, by Lisa Gardner and have started reading Chasing the North Star, by Robert Morgan.) If you are a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

Save

Writing talents from my mother

I’d like to think I inherited my writing talent from my mother, but she set the bar high. Today would have been her 104th birthday.

My mother was one of 10 children. She was the third youngest. She grew up on a farm in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, attended first grade a one-room school where all 11 grades were taught in one room.  When she graduated valedictorian of a consolidated high school in Charlotte, some of her city classmates were displeased. How dare a farm girl make the highest grades in the class! She went on to major in French and English at what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro during the Great Depression. After graduating, she taught French and English on the high school level for five years (also during the Great Depression, being paid $70.00 per month) until her marriage and second career as a homemaker and mother.

Growing up with an English teacher for a mother can be frustrating at times. Such a child is not allowed to make grammatical errors, even in jest. Such a child is taught from birth to use the correct verb tense. You might say the use of an incorrect verb tense was my mother’s pet peeve. By her example, I grew up ever-vigilant in catching grammatical errors I heard on TV or read in a newspaper. Although my mother died more than two decades ago, I still think of her and cringe  every time I hear an error by someone on TV who “should know better” or read a mistake in a news article written by someone who “should know better.” It wasn’t until I became an adult that I appreciated what my mother did for me. It wasn’t until I tried to become a writer that I became painfully aware that I should have paid more attention to punctuation in English class.

My mother loved teaching and late in her life she wrote and self-published a history of the first 100 years of organized women’s work in our church congregation. She even wrote a little play to accompany that 100-year milestone.

I was a young adult when she wrote that book, and I did not fully appreciate her accomplishments. For one thing, I just always took for granted what my mother did. I assumed all mothers could make doll clothes and some of their children’s clothing, even if they’d never had a sewing class. I assumed all mothers taught their toddlers to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in two languages. I assumed all mothers knew how to make doll cakes for their daughters’ birthdays. I assumed all mothers could teach themselves how to knit and crochet. I assumed any mother could write a book. Wasn’t that just what all mothers did?

It wasn’t until I reached my 40s and she was gone that I realized just how gifted my mother was. I’ve had sewing and quilting lessons, but I still struggle to darn a sock or sew on a button — things she did with ease. I can make a cake and ice it, but it would take me all day to make a doll cake and it wouldn’t be as elaborate and pretty as the ones she made. It wasn’t until I took a fiction writing course at Queens University of Charlotte in 2001 and started writing short stories and longer fiction that I realized that writing is hard work. My mother made all these and a host of other things look simple. I’m 63 years old and I still can’t get all the components of a meal ready on time or at the same time.

Mama, how in the world did you do it?