December 5, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
THE buzz surrounding this American debut novel has been loud, especially since Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiastic endorsement of earlier this Am no lo si Wi enen it month.
Something has struck a chord with the American press, too, as the early reviews are offering high praise for Ayana Mathis’s representation of African-American life in the segregated U.S.
This is all rather puzzling, given that the novel is OK, but not spectacular.
Perhaps it’s riding in on the wave that Kathryn Stockett’s The Help churned up last year. It is a shame that Mathis does not have Stockett’s ear for dialogue, let alone her sense of timing and humour.
Spanning seven decades and covering Hattie’s "12 tribes" (her 11 children and one grandchild), Mathis attempts to explore the effects of racial hatred on a workingclass black family, particularly as that hatred is at once internalized by Hattie and spewed against her long-suffering husband August.
Each chapter addresses a year in the life of a different child or children, starting with "Philadelphia and Jubilee" Hattie’s carefully named twins, who die as infants in 1925 because Hattie is 17, isolated and too proud to ask for help.
Thus, the first in a series of clichés gets underway: the "high yellow woman" who tragically marries a black man beneath her status; their overwhelming "physical need for each other" (hence the 11 children, one supposes); the singing to her children, "Mama’s little baby loves shortenin’ bread" as they slip from her control.
There is such a flatness to Hattie and August that they are difficult to imagine, their portraits barely more visible than the undeveloped background against which they are set. As the characters move between Georgia and Pennsylvania, part of the African-American’s so-called Great Migration, their observations relay nothing really tangible about the cities they inhabit — which broadly represent North and South, and that’s about it.
The second chapter shifts abruptly to 1940, to introduce their son Floyd and the American jazz scene. Floyd’s transience and unhappiness come into focus when the narrative reveals that he is gay and deeply ashamed of it. The scene in which he encounters his sexuality with a young man in the woods is filled with energy, but then Floyd drops out of the novel as quickly as he drops in.
Likewise, when we’re introduced to Floyd’s brother Six and his midcentury world of religious revival, the people to whom he preaches are simply voices who shout "Amen!"
The references to shouting or trodden-down "no account negroes" (Mathis’s words) are so shopworn that they almost sound racist, as if Mathis weren’t African-American herself.
On more than one occasion, the impression arises that Mathis is working through some of the racial self-hatred that she sees in Hattie.
The tired formulas might have been edited out that they function as the only indications of the novel’s historical setting. The dates launching each chapter don’t do much, other than to move things forward to 1980.
Hattie’s seven other children make their ways into and out of the novel, some with more compelling facets than others. Wounded by circumstances, the family’s poverty, or by Hattie herself, each remains scarcely connected to the next, even as a sense of sadness encloses them all together. In this way, the writing smoothly moves us along, despite its bumpy patches and frightening potholes.
After the opening chapter, Hattie all but departs from the book. While this disappearance seems very strange at first, it ultimately works as a narrative strategy. Her remoteness drives each of her children’s tales; as they try to catch sight of her, so do we.
It is brave to make the title character unlikable, and it is skilful to make that meanness comprehensible, too. Hattie’s re-emergence in the final chapter is also quite surprising and rewarding. In fact, in the flash of recognition that Hattie experiences, Mathis’s growth as a writer also becomes evident — as something that took place between the first page and the last.
Dana Medoro is a professor of American literature at the University of Manitoba.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie