Hope un­rav­els into lives of grim de­spair

The Twelve Tribes of Hat­tie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Delia Fal­coner Delia Fal­coner

By Ayana Mathis Hutchin­son, 243pp, $29.95 (HB)

COUNT­LESS west­erns and road movies have taught us that the great Amer­i­can jour­ney is east to west. But for African Amer­i­cans the epic tra­jec­tory is south to north. From early last cen­tury into the 1970s, about six mil­lion blacks left their small ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in the Jim Crow south for big north­ern cities in the Great Mi­gra­tion. Although Ayana Mathis’s de­but novel is set mostly in ur­ban Philadel­phia, that story drives its ev­ery moment.

As The Twelve Tribes of Hat­tie opens, teenage Hat­tie Shep­herd de­cides to name her new­born twins Philadel­phia and Ju­bilee. ‘‘ You cain’t give them ba­bies no crazy names like that!’’ her hus­band, Au­gust, says. But it’s 1925 and she’s still feel­ing the ela­tion of ar­riv­ing with her fam­ily two years ear­lier, coun­try mud on her skirt hems, to see her peo­ple liv­ing free of fear.

Hat­tie ‘‘ wanted to give her ba­bies names that weren’t al­ready chis­elled on a head­stone in the fam­ily plots in Ge­or­gia, so she gave them names of prom­ise and of hope, reach­ing­for­ward names, not look­ing-back ones’’. In the cou­ple’s newly rented house in Wayne Street, robins ‘‘ be­set the trees and roofs’’ and the block smells of straw­berry cakes set on win­dowsills to cool.

This is the last time we see Hat­tie happy. Within a few pages it’s win­ter, her sis­ters have re­turned south af­ter her mother’s death and the ba­bies have pneu­mo­nia. Hat­tie is try­ing to ease their breath­ing by crouch­ing be­side a steam­ing bath­tub — she knows no one in the neigh­bour­hood to call for help. By chap­ter’s end, they have died in the or­der they were born, Philadel­phia first, then Ju­bilee.

Next chap­ter, it’s 1948. Hat­tie’s son Floyd, a jazz trum­peter, is on the road in the south, try­ing to fight his ad­dic­tion to men.

The fol­low­ing chap­ter skips on to 1950. Six, an­other son, is also in the south, tour­ing the re­vival tents. Ugly as a boll weevil be­cause of a child­hood ac­ci­dent, he suf­fers from fits: some­times in­spir­ing vi­o­lence, at other times a daz­zling ser­mon. God never moves in him, but by chap­ter’s end he grasps this as the way to sex and power.

I have to ad­mit to flick­ing ahead at this point with some dis­may as I re­alised each chap­ter would spot­light one of Hat­tie’s 11 chil­dren (the last of the dozen ‘‘ tribes’’ is, in fact, her grand­daugh­ter).

Did I want to slog through a suc­ces­sion of vi­gnettes, none with enough meat to stand alone as a story? But fur­ther in I be­gan to ad­mire Mathis’s plot­ting. Th­ese snap­shots ac­cu­mu­late into the por­trait of a woman whose bit­ter pride is the tow­er­ing force in her chil­dren’s lives.

Beau­ti­ful Hat­tie mar­ried Au­gust be­cause she fell preg­nant. His chronic wom­an­is­ing has doomed her to con­stant strug­gle, even to feed her chil­dren. She’s had to teach them to be tough.

We are left not know­ing the fate of some, such as Floyd, but other cur­rents carry the book. Hat­tie stifles her feel­ings for her great love, Lawrence, a gam­bler. Wil­lie, an old woman wise in folk cures, reap­pears at cru­cial mo­ments. Hat­tie’s sis­ters come and go: Pearl, with Au­gust’s col­lu­sion, ends up adopt­ing her last-born daugh­ter and tak­ing her back with her to the south.

With­out even count­ing hope­less al­co­holic Franklin, serv­ing in Viet­nam, four of Hat­tie’s chil­dren have a men­tal ill­ness (Six, sex­u­ally abused Billups, ner­vous Alice and schiz­o­phrenic Cassie).

The novel seems to be sug­gest­ing, with a big serve of melo­drama, that a pathol­ogy lurks at the heart of this fam­ily even deeper than Hat­tie’s grief or her chil­dren’s long­ing for mother love: a spir­i­tual sick­ness for the south.

New Yorker Mathis has re­searched con­sci­en­tiously into ru­ral African-Amer­i­can folk tra­di­tions such as tra­di­tional medicine and wor­ship (Floyd meets a young man at a ‘‘ Seven Days’’ cel­e­bra­tion, an or­gias­tic pro­toMardi Gras). Per­haps be­cause of this, her book seems to ro­man­ti­cise black life in the south de­spite the lip-ser­vice given to its ter­rors. Sur­pris­ingly, in its nar­ra­tive scheme those who choose to stay in the south flour­ish (Six pros­pers, Pearl be­comes com­fort­ably rich, even Floyd finds some free­dom).

The Great Mi­gra­tion is poorly rep­re­sented in nov­els, so it’s easy to see why Oprah Win­frey has cho­sen The Twelve Tribes of Hat­tie for her re­vived Book Club 2.0. Win­frey com­pared the emo­tional im­pact of read­ing Mathis to Toni Mor­ri­son, who was a lit­er­ary icon when Oprah picked Beloved for her first book club, but not yet the mag­is­te­rial pres­ence now recog­nised by Mid­dle Amer­ica. Lucky Mathis is now in the Oprah-sphere, its sell­ing power so leg­endary that her pub­lish­ers im­me­di­ately bumped up her print run to 125,000 copies.

Cer­tainly, Mathis shares with Mor­ri­son an as­ton­ish­ingly con­fi­dent and plan­gent sto­ry­teller’s voice — though it can tip into over­writ­ing (Hat­tie ‘‘ clam­bered’’ from the train with ‘‘ the dream of Philadel­phia round as a mar­ble in her mouth and the fear of it a nee­dle in her chest’’). This ten­der cer­tainty gives her characters’ lives a kind of in­evitabil­ity, so that we never lose sight of the big­ger story they are part of.

Still, for all the huge­ness of its sub­ject, this novel is un­der­mined by a cer­tain pat­ness. Al­most ev­ery scene is from the movie-of-the­week playbook. Au­gust is al­ways hope­less; Hat­tie al­ways suf­fers (though she at least re­fuses to find God). Mathis’s writ­ing plucks at the heart­strings a lit­tle too self-con­sciously: Hat­tie’s daugh­ter Cassie, dy­ing of TB, thinks of the wheezes in her chest as her ‘‘ moths’’. A writer less keen to hit the emo­tional high notes, a Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez for ex­am­ple, might have also given the poor the dig­nity of their hu­mour, and their plea­sures.

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