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~Book Club Potential~
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis is one of those books that seem destined to become a popular 'book club' choice, to be discussed by women sipping white wine on sofas and debating the past (or present) sins of American racism. Lest it sound like I'm running it down, I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing because a book doesn't get to be a book club favourite without having something important to say. However it does mean that if you aren't careful, when you are reading it you'll find lots of worthy questions popping into your head. 'How did attitudes to race change during the period of the 20th Century covered by the book?' or 'Why is Hattie's approach to mothering her children so unloving' and - the question at the heart of this book, stated in the most blunt way possible, must surely be ' Why are all the characters so bloody miserable?'
~Hattie and Family~
The matriarch of our tale is Hattie and she was born in Georgia, a hotbed of southern racism. Hattie wanted to get out and headed north to Philadelphia with her feckless and unreliable husband, August, in search of a better future for herself and her future children. Nine babies followed since despite the animosity between Hattie and August, they just can't keep their hands off each other when the lights go down.
The book kicks off in 1925 in Philadelphia with Hattie nursing her twin babies, little more than a child herself. The book ends in 1980 with Hattie as grandmother to a troubled family and due to sad circumstances caring for one of her grandchildren. In between 1925 and 1980, each of the chapters tells us about one or more of her children and their trouble lives. It would be marvellous if we could see some kind of progress in the lives of the family but regardless of the year, nobody's ever having an easy time in Hattie's family.
~The Little and not so Little Ones~
Her first babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee, get sick and die tragically in the very first chapter but most of the other children are introduced to us as adults. There's Floyd the musician, battling with the demons of a sexuality that neither he nor those around him are likely to find acceptable, showing us that there is something even tougher than being black in the south and that's being black and sexually confused in the south. Next we meet Hattie's oddly named son, 'Six', who combines a precocious talent for healing and preaching with a voracious lust for the ladies. Ruthie is one of the little ones, Hattie's baby by her lover, a man who briefly appears to offer her the glimpse of a better life but inevitably disappoints her just like every other man. Ella is born many years later than her brothers and sisters and is promised by August to Hattie's childless sister who has done well for herself but lacks what Hattie has in abundance - children. Alice has done well for herself, marrying into the family of a wealthy black doctor but she and her brother Billups have a strange relationship based on control dressed up as love and Alice - despite her wealth and status - is ultimately as miserable as everyone else. Perhaps brother Billups offers us the only glimpse of a child of Hattie who isn't completely unhappy. Franklyn is sent to Vietnam to fight for his country whilst Bell is a lonely, sad woman, dying alone in her filthy apartment, estranged from all her family. And finally we meet Cassie, sick in body and in mind and no longer able to care for her daughter Sala, who passes into the care of Hattie and August, perhaps giving them an opportunity at last to atone for the mistakes they made with their own children.
~A Novel or a set of Short Stories?~
Although this is presented as a novel, there's little plot or progression through the book. In effect, these could be the stories of a handful of unhappy black people who had no connection to one another, since the only thread of continuity that runs through is the parents - Hattie and her husband August. These are all stories of disappointment, of lives lived in small and unhappy ways, of people from a large family who are all ultimately strangers to one another. They are siblings but their is little bonding or support are each in their own way is very alone and lonely. I yearned for someone - anyone - to bring some fire, passion and joy to this book but I looked in vain.
The book is beautifully written though some chapters are much stronger than others, and some sticking in the mind for little more time than they take to read. It's the unremiiting miseray and lack of any sense of redemption that stayed with me when I reached the end. I couldn't help but feel sorry for these people but I'm reluctant to blame Hattie and August for the sadness of their children, even though I can't help but feel that's where I'm supposed to find my conclusions. I feel a little maniputlated. I feel that the book is trying to force me to address questions of parental love and responsibility and I'm not really committed to doing that.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Ayana Mathis' first book. I hope she writes many more but I equally hope she can find some happiness and share it out amongst the characters of any books which follow.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
I received my copy from the publishers Hutchinson via the site curiousbookfans.co.uk and the book was launched earlier this month. Thanks to both Hutchinson and Curiousbookfans.