READING IN MARCH: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis


Wow, does this book polarise readers and reviewers. Missing from the picture to the left is the sticker on the copy I read - " 'I can't remember when I read anything that moved me quite this way, besides Toni Morrison' Oprah Winfrey". Endorsement enough you may think, after all Oprah's Book Club List is notable for some great reading, as well as some not so great, and she has a massive following in the US. So you kind of get the feeling that you should love this, especially if you are of African-American descent, but it would appear not. It is moving, but not as moving as I would have thought.

It isn't so much the subject matter that seems to be the problem.  Hattie Shepherd is a young teenager when she moves with her mother and sister from the violence and segregation of Jim Crow Georgia (being white middle class female living in the racially harmonious paradise of New Zealand I had to look this up) to Philadelphia in the 1920s as part of The Great Migration ( I had to look this up too). Naturally things do not go as planned for Hattie and at 17 she finds herself married to August and the mother of twins. Things rapidly go downhill from thereon, and 55 years later, when the book ends, Hattie has had eleven children and one grandchild - the twelve tribes of Hattie.

The biblical references are everywhere in this novel, as are the trials and tribulations that Hattie's children are burdened with. The problem with this book is in the way the story is told. Each chapter is set in a different year over the 55 year period and about a different child. So there is a fair amount of jumping around. Some of the chapters have Hattie, the mother, as a dominant character, others barely mention her, in others she is a strong presence but only in a background way. Equally so the father, August, who is continuously  portrayed as as a useless, lazy, drunkard. In fact none of the men, including the sons, seem to have a single redeeming feature. 

The children all seem to be damaged in some way: the 15 year old boy left with a life long scar after a childhood accident who discovers he is a gifted preacher; the young man who goes to Vietnam and realises he is a clone of his father; the daughter who makes a respectable marriage to a doctor who continually feeds her sleeping pills; the daughter who is schizophrenic, and so it goes on. It is bewildering to me that out of a family of 11 children, nothing seems to go right for any of them. Two we don't really know about as they are babies. One is adopted by Hattie's sister - the pain in this chapter is Hattie's, and the other is not August's child - again the pain is Hattie's.

Each of the chapters reads more like a short story rather than a continuous thread, and this for me is the problem. There is no interconnection between the chapters, not only in time -  from 1925 to 1948 to 1950 to 1954 to 1968 for example, but also in subject matter. What happens in one chapter has no relevance to the previous or the next chapters, the last two chapters excepted. Throughout the book there is very little about the family as a whole, about aspirations and dreams the parents may have for their children, and very little if any background as to the circumstances that led each child to be in their current predicaments. I wanted to know more, and it simply wasn't there.

Perhaps the most surprising omission was anything to do with the Civil Rights Movement. This lack of rights is what led to Hattie being in Philadelphia in the first place, possibly the single most significant event in her life. And yet not one single chapter/child has anything to do with this crucial time in America's recent history.

Despite all this, the quality of the writing is stunning. The author gets inside the heads of her characters, so cleverly we feel sympathy, frustration and annoyance that they are in their current predicaments. How easily do we really control our own destinies, or are we are a product of our upbringings.  Poor Hattie has a tough road as a mother of 11, and wife to the hopeless August. Who wouldn't have a tough road with all that going on. Perhaps it is hardly surprising the way things turn out for her 12 tribes, and I am sure this novel reflects the lives of many, many women and families around the world.  Above all else this is really a story about motherhood and love. You wonder as a mother if you have enough love to give all your children, whether you have two or twelve. It may be patchy at times,  hidden while dealing with all the other stuff, either not expressed or expressed in strange ways, but if this book is anything to go by, it is definitely there.

No comments:

Post a Comment