Hope unravels into lives of grim despair
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
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.