Thursday, December 13, 2012
REVIEW: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis
I usually don't think of myself as the "Oprah Book" type- I'm way too snobby for that, right?- but the truth is I love that Oprah Winfrey does so much to encourage reading and sometimes I even love the books she picks out. The last time I read an Oprah pick that wasn't a classic I knew, like Anna Karenina, was way back when she picked Anne-Marie MacDonald's Fall On Your Knees. I don't know exactly what it was, but something about the way she described that book really made me want to read it. And you know what? I really enjoyed it.
And I really enjoyed her latest pick, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Last Friday Shelf Awareness announced the pick, and that the book would be going on sale ahead of its scheduled January 2013 release. That very day I was visiting Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., and decided to pick it up.
The story follows the life and family of Hattie Shepherd and her husband, August. Hattie comes north from Georgia to Philadelphia has part of the great migration of African-Americans so well documented in the recent bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. That book was compelling history; this is compelling fiction building on that true story. She marries August when she's still a teen and their difficult relationship and many children form the backbone of the book. You could almost approach the book as a collection of short stories. Each chapter focuses on one or two people and bumps forward a little in time, giving the book both personal and historic scope. Settings range from church revivals in the South to a wealthy suburban home to Vietnam to one woman's skewed interior life; among Hattie's children are a musician, a soldier, a housewife, and more. They all struggle with secrets, illnesses, loneliness and a desperate need to be loved.
Hattie herself is like a shadow in many of these stories, her echo sounding in each difficult, painful life. There's hope too- there's an unexpected recovery, a peace that comes after much heartache, and finally the chance that the future will be better for some. Mathis's writing is beautiful and confident; she moves from one voice and scene to the next with ease and creates rich characters and vivid settings. She gets to the heart of these people, gets their voices just right and gives each one a unique perspective and personality. The chapters she devotes to Hattie in particular made me feel like I really knew this person, this frustrated and tired and disappointed woman who was never able to show her children any love. On the surface she might almost be unlikeable, except we know her too well for that.
I think even without Oprah's imprimatur this book would have done well and reached a lot of readers but now it will be the hit it should be. Literary readers will enjoy the craftsmanship and emotional reach, and it's a natural choice for book clubs with lots to talk about. It's really terrific and deserves a broad audience. It's a beautiful work with more than a dash of heartbreak and hope.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.