Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Books We Want for the Holidays: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Remember that book we talked about a couple of weeks ago, the untitled one by an unnamed author?  Today the mystery was revealed.  The great O, lover of books, selected Ayana Mathis's first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.  Here's why I like this pick.  Because Oprah decided to name Hattie as the second book in her revitalized Oprah's Book Club 2.0, we're able to sell it now, before the holidays, instead of waiting until January.  Also, I really like this book, and I hope with Oprah's help that Ayana Mathis will be recognized as a significant new voice in literary fiction.

Here's what you should know about The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.  If you like the early Toni Morrison novels--The Bluest Eye, Sula, Jazz--you will like Hattie.  This is a story about a young African-American woman who moves from the South to Philadelphia in search of greater opportunities.  Hattie is fifteen when she moves, and without a couple of years she is married to August and giving birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee.  She is looking forward, escaping Jim Crow racism, in love.  Hattie's, though, is a tale of struggle and loss.  And this is an Oprah pick, so it shouldn't be much of a shock to hear that her twins catch pneumonia and die as infants.  Hattie and August press on, though, and the reader learns about Hattie's life through the stories of her children and grandchild--her twelve tribes.
Ayana Mathis

This isn't a mammy tale of a loving, happy, African-American woman.  This is struggle and heartbreak.  Hattie suffers a terrible loss early, and she is a mother aware that she is raising children who will encounter great difficulty.  She doesn't coddle her babies.  She will fight for them and work herself to exhaustion and care for them when they are sick, even as August drifts to other women.  Her children long for Hattie's love, but she guards her heart.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will not be the feel good book of the year, but it might be one of the most audacious fiction debuts.  Ayana Mathis can WRITE.  And in spite of the emotional hell Hattie suffers and then inflicts, she's a flawed character about whom I still care.  Her children, likewise, are remarkable characters.  Not every story needs a happy ending.


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