Anna Jean Mayhew draws from her Charlotte roots and builds on the long tradition of North Carolina storytelling in this stunning coming-of-age debut. In August 1954, just after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 13-year-old Jubie Watts of Charlotte and her fractured, puzzling family take a vacation for the first time without Jubie’s violent, alcoholic father. On the trip are Jubie’s chain-smoking mother (who’s quicker to criticize wrinkled drapes than give her own children a hug), her older born-again sister, two younger siblings, and their black maid Mary (the nurturer to the family). Just as Jubie notices the changes happening to her own body, like needing a tin of deodorant powder from her Meemaw while her other sisters receive charm bracelets and hair ribbons, she becomes aware of the increasing racism toward Mary as they head deeper and deeper south.

In alternating chapters sprinkled with Coke bottles, Marilyn Monroe, and other pop-culture references, strong-willed Jubie also looks back at recently revealed family secrets — her father’s roving eyes, her mother’s missing teeth, shortcuts in the family business — and begins to understand how they are slowly tearing the family apart. Perhaps the only person who might understand her feelings and longings is Leesum Fields, a 15-year-old black boy rescued by Mary and her church family. But Jubie knows that their newly formed friendship can put them in danger.

Mayhew’s keen ear for dialect, complex characters, and sensitive descriptions of this turbulent time in American history fuel the taut story line. With all the tension, readers nervously wait for the spark to ignite the powder keg of hatred and cruelty. When tragedy does strike, they turn again to Jubie for healing and renewed hope.

Kensington Books. 2011, 352 pages, paperback, $15.

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