January 2013

Sessily Watt


The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie opens with the markings of joy: a new couple, new babies, a new rented home, and new promises to move into a permanent home in the near future. Hattie, to whom the narrative will return again and again, is sixteen. Her husband August is training to be an electrician. In a little over 240 pages, it will be 1980 and few of those early markings of joy will have worked out as expected, but for now, a few pages into the beginning of the novel, it is the winter of 1925 and Hattie huddles in a steam-filled bathroom with her coughing and wheezing babies.

This first chapter is titled "Philadelphia and Jubilee" after the sickly twins, and subsequent chapters carry the names of Hattie's other children and, in one case, a grandchild. The chapters are chronological vignettes, dropping the reader into a conflict for the child in question or for Hattie. They jump forward in time, twenty years at one point and a couple days at another. In 1948, for example, Floyd attempts to make it as a trumpet player and struggles with his sexuality and morality. In the next chapter, it's 1950 and Floyd's brother, Six, is facing down his anger and the emotional aftereffects of the burns he received as a child. Rather than forming an overarching plot, these chapter-vignettes accrue to create a vision of Hattie and the family that has spread out around her. She is the center to which the novel continually returns. Even when she is mentioned in passing or not at all, a vision of her, her husband, and the other children hovers in the background.

Over the course of the novel, patterns emerge. This is a tempestuous family. The children see their mother as chilly and aloof, while their father is goofy and fun, though also irresponsible. Neither Hattie nor August can break out of the expected roles of mother and father, though they don't fit comfortably into those roles either. "You never loved anything," whispers one of Hattie's children and this is perhaps the central concern of the novel as they all struggle with how to give and receive love, whether with each other or with the partners they seek outside the family. Injury, death, war, religion, gambling, adultery, and illness play their parts, too, complicating relationships and undermining expectations.

Though the questions of how and whom to love are universal, the backdrop to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is particularly American. Hattie and her family live through and reference the Great Migration, juke joints, Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, and changing neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Race relations are amply evident, such as in a confrontation between a group of white men and Hattie's sister and brother-in-law at a "Negro rest stop" in Virginia, but it's class that has a greater presence throughout these vignettes. Sometimes race and class are explicitly tied together, as with Alice in 1968, who has married into a family among the colored elite of Philadelphia. Her mother-in-law is horrified that she visits a colored tailor and immediately sends her to a white seamstress who "was contemptuous even as she kneeled at Alice's feet to pin her hem." In other places, the relationship between race and class hovers in the background, unstated. Hattie and her children think about how to speak, how to hold themselves, and where to live, attempting to change themselves to fit their surroundings, whether they are moving upward in class or down. As often as not, their feelings toward class are contradictory, revealing the gaps between reality and their desires for themselves.

Later in the novel, these patterns and associations create a density that comes to life as events are seen from multiple perspectives between and within vignettes. What the reader knows and experiences at the end is far richer than what is known and experienced in the beginning and middle. While this is to be expected in any novel, the structure of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie requires the reader to reorient at the beginning of every vignette, both in time and in character, continually beginning again, which undermines the momentum toward that ending richness. At the same time, the vignettes do not quite stand on their own. They rely on the associations with the other characters to build to the greater depths that art of all types can provide, that sense of something seen and described, but not quite known. The result is a novel full of conflict and emotion, but somewhat disjointed in presentation.

Nevertheless, all of the chapters have moments of grace, despair, and hope and different characters will likely resonate with different readers. The range of emotion and experience demonstrates how a family can stretch out in every direction and then be pulled up by the taut cords of love, responsibility, hatred, hope, and support.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
ISBN: 978-0385350280
256 pages