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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – good literature but too bleak for me.

September 15, 2021 12 comments

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2012) French title: Les douze tribus d’Hattie. Translated by François Happe.

As often, I’m late with my billet as The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis was our Book Club choice for July.

In 1923, the young Hattie moves out of Georgia with her family to settle in Philadelphia. They go to the city and away from the Jim Crow laws. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is made of twelve vignettes, each for one of Hattie’s offspring, with Hattie as an Ariadne thread along the book. We meet each child or grand-child at one moment in their lives and through the different chapters, we get an idea of Hattie’s life. Each chapter is a key moment in Hattie’s life and each belong to one child.

We start in 1925. Hattie is now married to August and they have seven-month twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The twins die of fever, no, out of poverty. Hattie and August didn’t have the money to buy the penicillin that could have saved them. This made Hattie’s and August’s lives derail with sorrow.

We leap to 1948 where we meet Floyd, the jazz musician of the family.

We’re in 1950 and we spend time with Six, the future preacher.

We’re in 1951, when Ruthie was born and Hattie tried to leave her husband.

In 1954, Ella, Hattie’s last baby is sent out to live with her barren aunt Pearl, in Georgia.

In 1968, we see what has become of Alice and Billups and why they have a special bond.

In 1969, we spend some time in Vietnam with Franklin.

In 1975, Bell is dying of tuberculosis and we learn about her difficult relationship with her mother.

In 1980, Cassie is schizophrenic and Hattie and August have to hospitalize her. Her daughter Sala comes to live with her grand-parents.

Hattie spent her life taking care of her children, preparing meals, cleaning and worrying about money while August paraded in new clothes, went out dancing and had various affairs. She also had an affair with Lawrence and would have left August if she could have taken her children with her. The untimely death of the twins shattered her confidence for a better future.

It is the life of a woman who never had time for herself, was a tough cookie and never managed to communicate her love for her children. Her love was in the energy she put in feeding, clothing and nursing them. But with nine children and her pregnancies, did she have time for anything else?

On paper, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is my kind of book but I wasn’t too fond of it. The form of the book left me hanging. Each chapter is devoted to one child and then we never hear anything from them again. We leave Franklin in 1948, he’s a gifted musician, he has just understood that he’s gay and then poof! he disappears of the book. That was disappointing, as if they only had an existence to pinpoint a moment in Hattie’s life.

And then I found it too bleak. Not one of them has a better life, except maybe Floyd and Ella but we don’t know for sure. They are all marked by tragedy or illness. One had 50% of his body burnt when he fell in boiling water. One is schizophrenic. One was abused as a child and his sibling knew about it. One is a drunkard. One is separated of her mother to live with her aunt. One is in an abusive relationship.

Bleak, bleak, bleak. Not one uplifting moment in the whole book. It’s not even plausible that, out of nine living children, not one lived to live an uneventful life, especially during the Post-war economic boom. Then I read in the Acknowledgments that Ayana Mathis thanks Marilynne Robinson for her friendship and guidance and I thought “Of course, now the bleakness makes sense.” I really really disliked the only Robinson I’ve read, Housekeeping. All I remember about it are broken souls, bleakness and constant rain.

Hattie’s children have a complicated relationship with their mother as they grew up in a tough environment. They have attachment issues. And of course, seen from the book’s angle, it seems to be Hattie’s fault. August was absent, throwing away money that could have helped the household but he’s not the defective parent. Too much depends on women and the children’s difficulties all seem to stem out of her lack of hugs. I would have liked to hear about the children’s difficult relationship with their father too, but it’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, not of August, as if children only belonged to their mother. And in Hattie’s time, it’s probably true. The responsibility of raising children only fell on the mother’s shoulders.

If I look at The Twelve Tribes of Hattie through a literary magnifying glass, it’s an excellent book. The style is good, you can see it’s well-constructed, the story makes sense and there’s a goal in showing black America from the 1920s to the 1980s, although, in my opinion, the fact that it’s a black family isn’t that important. You could have had the same story in an Irish-American family. The only difference is that, due to their leaving Georgia, Hattie was out of a support system when the babies were sick. No tribe for Hattie’s generation, no sense of community like in American-Italian neighborhoods.

The most disheartening part of it is that the book is called The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not Hattie’s Tribe. Each offspring is on their own. These siblings don’t make one united tribe and that’s probably their parents’ biggest failure.

Have you read this book? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

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