Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

I went into this book a bit skeptical because Oprah has spent so much time touting it.  But I really enjoyed it.  The book is a collection of interrelated stories about Hattie, a relatively poor young Southern black girl who has moved to Philadelphia with her mother and two sisters.  She gets pregnant at 17 by August, the first "respectable" boy who shows an interest in her.  The first pregnancy results in twins who die from pneumonia as infants, but Hattie and August go on to have 9 other children.  Each story revolves around the life of one of the children.  It is clear from the lives of all the surviving children that Hattie never fully recovered from the deaths of her first borns and it plays out in the relationship she has with them.  She's fiercely protective and will do anything to ensure their survival - even suffering the indignities of welfare payments while August wastes away their money on booze and loose women.  But she is unable to show them any real affection, especially after they are infants.  August, for all his wandering ways, is far more loving.  But the directions her children take are interesting - Floyd, a jazz musician and closet homosexual, leaves home at a young age to chase his musical dreams; Six, who is scarred both physically and mentally from a childhood accident leaves home at 15 to return to the South and be a preacher; Ruthie, who is probably not August's child but who he treats as well as his own when he realizes he can't really cope without Hattie; Ella, the youngest, who Hattie reluctantly gives to her wealthy but barren younger sister, for the child's own good; Alice, who marries a wealthy doctor in order to protect her brother Billups who was abused as a child while she was locked in the next room, and Billups who does not want her protection and takes up with her maid; Franklin who fights in Vietnam; Bell, who betrays her mother and becomes estranged for decades - only to be reunited when Bell is at her lowest point; and finally Cassie and her daughter Sala.  Cassie suffers from mental illness and, in an effort to save her, Hattie and August have her committed and are left to care for the next generation, this time wiser and more committed to each other.

The book is well written and the characters, though very flawed, are likeable.  A worthwhile read (even if it means I'm agreeing with Oprah).

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