Jul 28, 2014

'The Twelve Tribes of Hattie' Is Worth a Look

This first novel by Ayana Mathis was an Oprah Book Club pick.

'The Twelve Tribes of Hattie' Is Worth a Look


"The Twelve Tribes of Hattie," Ayana Mathis' debut novel, has been a huge hit with the imprimatur of Oprah's Book Club.

Without Oprah's backing, I'm not sure the book would have made the bestseller list, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a look.

The book opens as Hattie arrives in Philadelphia as a young woman who is part of the black migration from the South — in her case, Georgia — during the mid-1920s. After the initial devastating chapter about what befalls Hattie during her first winter in the city, the rest of the book explores her "tribes" or offspring in short-storyish tales that barely overlap or intersect in time or place.

Among Hattie's children are Floyd, a sexually confused musician drifting from town to town in 1948; Six, a newly minted revival tent preacher in 1950 who ends up exploiting his gifts; and Cassie, a mentally ill mother who has to be institutionalized in 1980, leaving an elderly Hattie to raise Cassie's daughter.

Mathis' writing has the noble bearing of a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The sentences are polished, sometimes overly so, and deliberate:

"Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren't already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones."

The novel's message — that Hattie's grief and poverty damaged every one of her children — may resonate with those still struggling with the aftereffects of the Great Recession. It's a bleak outlook, though, so be prepared for living under a thundercloud for as long as it takes to finish the book.

Mathis said in an interview with Oprah that "we do hunger more for suffering characters simply because people, I find, often are hesitant to discuss, air or seek support for the deepest and most painful things in their lives. And so in literature we can find companions and mirrors of [our own suffering]."

While there's some truth to that, I would have enjoyed the book more had Mathis given just one of Hattie's children a little joy and a sense of possibility. As it is, there's not much to stop the expanding circle of poverty and mental illness that Hattie puts in motion.

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