Monday, June 22, 2015

I Listened to 'The Twelve Tribes of Hattie' by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Ayana Mathis's first novel, but you wouldn't know that from reading it. She has the gift of holding the reader's attention rapt with masterful character development and expert turns of phrase. She tells the story of Hattie Shepherd in an unconventional way - through the filter of Hattie's 11 children and her granddaughter Sala. It's almost like a collection of interlinked short stories rather than a novel, but it does have consistent themes and interlocking story lines.

In many ways, Hattie and her children are representative of the African American experience in the 20th century. She was born in Georgia to a solidly middle-class family. At age 15, she had a casual fling with August, a 17-year-old she liked but considered too much of a country boy to be a serious relationship prospect. She became pregnant, though, and the two of them married. They moved to Philadelphia to be near Hattie's sister. In that way, they became part of the Great Migration of African-American families from the South to the North.

The young mother gave birth to fraternal twins. Despite August's reservations, she named the boy Philadelphia and the girl Jubilee. Sadly, the twins would succumb to pneumonia before their first birthday. Hattie would never completely recover from the loss of her first- and second-born.

She would, however, go on to give birth to (not in this order) Alice, Bell, Billups, Cassie, Ella, Floyd, Franklin, Ruthie (also known as Margaret), and Six. We get little vignettes about each of them:

- Alice grows up to marry a doctor. He wants children, but she secretly takes birth control pills to delay that from happening. Although she lives in a mansion, her life is empty.

- Bell works in a sleazy bar.

Sidebar: Mathis describes its windows as opaque. That phrase really stuck in my head and bothered me. Opaque windows would essentially be ceramic. Opaque means that light can't pass through it, as we all learned in junior high science class. The glass was probably tinted so that it was translucent without being transparent, but I really don't think it was opaque. It irks both the word nerd and the science nerd in me.

She takes up with a ne'er-do-well in his cockroach-infested apartment in a neighborhood Bell's siblings term "the ghetto." She intends to commit a kind of slow suicide by tuberculosis. (This is the 1970s, mind you, when tuberculosis was highly treatable - before the HIV epidemic contributed to antibiotic-resistant TB.) She is saved by a chance run-in with Willie, a former neighbor who should, by rights, be the Herbology professor at the U.S. equivalent of Hogwarts. She is also saved by discovering that Hattie never stopped loving her - as best Hattie can.

- Billups is terribly abused by a tutor as a child.

- Cassie struggles with mental illness. She's the mother of Sala, whose story makes up the last section of the book. Hattie's last act in the book is to deny a religious calling to the 12-year-old, since Cassie's illness (possibly schizophrenia) takes the form of religious mania (with delusions of persecution). Hattie and August must raise Sala after Cassie must finally be admitted to a mental health hospital.

- Ella is born when Hattie is in her 40s. Because the family is struggling financially when the youngest comes along, Hattie makes the incredibly difficult decision to give Ella to her childless (and financially well-off) sister to raise in Georgia.

- Floyd is musically talented. As a traveling horn player, he's developed a reputation as a ladies' man. This reputation masks the fact that he's gay. When he visits a Southern town and takes part in a wild, Pagan-like festival called the Seven Days, he meets a young man named Lafayette with whom he has a chance to find love. Floyd can't summon the strength to let love overcome his fear.

- Franklin serves in the navy during the Vietnam War. While he is overseas, in charge of patrolling a bay through which weapons are smuggled, he learns in a letter from his ex-wife that they have a daughter. Franklin struggles with alcoholism and wonders if he'll ever have a relationship with his daughter.

- We know very little about the kind of person Ruthie turns out to be, because we see her mostly as a baby. She's the only one of Hattie's children who has a father other than August.

- Six was burned in an accident when he was a child. Given a low chance of survival, he defies the odds. When another child teases him about Hattie having a boyfriend, Six beats the boy savagely. He's sent off down South with the preacher for a few weeks, during which Six discovers he has a talent for preaching from the pulpit, if not an actual inclination to be good.

Throughout the book, Hattie is often portrayed as being aloof, cold, distant, and angry. The revelations of her life story, however, make this attitude seem perfectly reasonable. Hattie has often been given the short end of the stick of life. Even when she tries to leave August (who's a bit of a drunk and a womanizer) for another man, the other man (Lawrence) turns out to be just as bad, if not worse. Her "running away from home" episode (told through Ruthie's story) lasts less than 24 hours.

August is a bad husband, but he's a great father. In the end, as his health begins to fail, he begins attending church regularly, stops seeing other women, and regularly tells Hattie he loves her. His story arc is more redemptive than Hattie's - perhaps because, in many ways, she's stuck as that teenage mother from the 1930s, helpless to care for her own children, no matter how much she loves them and wants the best for them. Life simply overwhelms Hattie. She never seems to achieve her own happiness; rather, the suggestion is that the cycle of familial misery will be broken in Sala.

I bought this 8-disc audiobook at a library used media sale and was not obligated to review it in any way. I chose it because Irish Granny had already read the paperback version and she recommended it.

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