The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Oprah's Book Club 2.0)

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie - Ayana Mathis Rating = 3.5 starsAw, hell. How am I supposed to rate this? There's some powerful writing here, but the structure of the novel prevents it from gaining much momentum. Each chapter is devoted to one or two of Hattie's children, and after they get that one chapter, they're mostly abandoned for the remainder of the novel. Each character has to be introduced and developed within the space of one long chapter, never to be heard from again (mostly) once their time in the spotlight has passed. Adding to the discontinuity are the long time gaps between chapters. You get "Philadelphia and Jubilee" in 1925, followed by "Floyd" in 1948, then "Six" in 1950, and so on. Instead of a novel, it begins to feel like a series of interconnected stories, with one or two characters binding them all together. Hattie is the only character we can connect with throughout the entire book, and often that connection is from a distance. Does this mean I didn't enjoy the book? No. Ayana Mathis is a mighty fine writer. She seems to write from a place of understanding the hearts and minds of a people whose history offered them limited options, often resulting in self-destructive behaviors. In 1923, Hattie moves to Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration, when many Southern black people moved north hoping to escape abuse and poverty. The absence of Jim Crow laws allows her greater dignity and freedom from fear, but financial success eludes her. Her husband is a hard-drinking, gambling, womanizing scoundrel, but she can't resist him in the bedroom. So baby after baby after baby arrives. Hattie is so busy just trying to keep them fed and clothed and out of trouble that she doesn't think to give them the warmth and affection they crave. Each chapter shows how that life of poverty and apparent hopelessness infects each child with a certain poverty of spirit. What Ayana Mathis does masterfully is show how removal from oppression does not automatically lift the feeling of being oppressed. At the end of the novel, Hattie observes: "Here we are, sixty years out of Georgia, a new generation has been born, and there's still the same wounding and the same pain." Healing takes more than a generation, and the work is still upon us.This has no bearing on the story, but I found it interesting and effective the way Mathis uses references to food to illustrate the various skin tones. She describes people with skin the color of liquid caramel, clover honey, milky tea, nutmeg, and cinnamon. And Hattie, who could have "passed," has skin "the color of the inside of an almond." I'm so pale that I practically glow in the dark, but when I look at my skin, it's not really white. The closest I could get, using a food reference, would be the inside of a Yukon Gold potato. Appetizing, ain't it?