Friday, February 15, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

This weeks choice is one of those books you see on those tables set up in the entryway of a Barnes and Noble and after reading the synopsis, you can't believe you find yourself wanting to buy a book that was recommended by Oprah's Book Club. But what can I say? The description of Ayana Mathis' The Twelve Tribes of Hattie had me hooked and I wanted to know more. The story of an African-American mother and her eleven children told through several different narrative voices sounded too close to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury for me to pass it up.

The Situation: The story begins in 1925 with Hattie Shepherd as a young African-American girl living in Philadelphia with her husband, August, and their two newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The novel then continues to give snapshots into the lives of Hattie's other eleven children and one of her grandchildren over the next 55 years. It isn't specified whether the stories for each of the children come in a random order, or in order by birth. Some siblings even share a chapter, while others have their story told while they are just infants. Hattie raises them all in the way she believes is best, despite being incredibly poor, but still with so many mouths to feed.

The Problem: Aside from being incredibly poor, it doesn't help matters at all when August insists on spending almost every dollar he earns on nights out at the bars and clubs, as well as on other women. Also, because of the tragedy that befalls her two firstborns, and the strain that comes from tolerating August, Hattie because a cold, sometimes cruel, harsh, and often distant mother. This hard upbringing puts many of Hattie's children onto the dark path that Hattie was hoping to keep them from. Hattie hoped to teach them by her example that the world would not treat them with tenderness, would not be kind, would not care for them, would not love them. As a result, at least three children seem to succumb to some type of psychotic delusions; one has fits that either cause him to preach the word of God, or act out violently; one comes dangerously close to death's door after contracting tuberculosis; and yet another doesn't even grow up in the same state as her parents. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie tells twelve different stories of the Shepherd children, and almost all of them are negative. And it is Hattie's granddaughter that causes her to look at the different paths her children have taken, and decide how she'll direct the path of this last Shepherd that has been left in her care.  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I have seen categorized as historical fiction, since it begins in 1920s Philadelphia, after Hattie has moved north from Georgia with her mother and sisters in the hope of building a better life outside of the Jim Crow south. It could also be considered a bildungsroman or coming of age story since it begins when Hattie is only 17 and ends when she's 72. The individual stories may be named after and focus on Hattie's children at different stages of their life, but Hattie still remains the central character. Also, with these different stories comes different narrative voices. For the most part, the narrator speaks in the third person. But there are two chapters where we hear from Hattie's children directly, and both times it is to highlight their fragmented thinking and just how close they are to losing it. Motherhood is a major theme - what it means to be a mother, what responsibilities come from starting a family, what some are willing to sacrifice for their kids, and what others refuse to give up.

My Verdict: Don't get me wrong, there is some solid and descriptive writing here. Mathis knows how to set a scene and convey extremely powerful emotions. However, even with the vivid backdrop and raw emotions, many of Mathis' characters just didn't seem believable to me...including Hattie. They just didn't seem fully formed, and it often felt like that character was there just because Mathis needed him/her in order to meet the number twelve. Maybe if the pictures we are given into their lives weren't of such a small moment in history I would feel more connected. Even the bits and pieces I see of Hattie from the children's perspective give me little more than a fragmented view of her. This is of course Mathis' first novel, and I still believe this is an incredibly strong start to her writing career. And while I sometimes felt like the different stories took away from the depth of the novel, the structure was effective in holding my interest.

Favorite Moment: When Hattie is reunited with one of her children whom she hasn't spoken to in quite awhile, and aides in saving her life.

Favorite Character: Hattie's daughter Bell. She is just as damaged as most of Hattie's other children, but her story ends with redemption and hope. It is one of the few stories that ends with a feeling that things might actually get better.

Recommended Reading: Since I brought it up already, I will recommend William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It is longer, harder to understand, you only have to hear from three brothers and an unknown narrator, and you may have to read it twice before you get it, but it is worth it.

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