In The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, first-time author Ayana Mathis walks upon some of the richest thematic terrain our country’s history can offer a novelist.
Her protagonist, Hattie Shepherd, arrives in Philadelphia from Georgia in the mid-1920s, one of a legion of travelers in the great migration, that movement of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the promise and relative freedom of the North.
The migration gave us the Harlem Renaissance and too many great American writers to list here. It ended in the middle of the last century but has never lost its influence on the American imagination. Toni Morrison tapped into that collective experience to write one of the best American novels of the 20th century, Song of Solomon.
Song of Solomon was the second book Oprah Winfrey chose for the wildly influential book club she started in 1996. Last month the recently relaunched “Oprah’s Book Club 2.0” chose as its second selection another book of fiction published by Knopf: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
Thanks to Oprah, Mathis is now the beneficiary of the book world’s most precious and rare commodity: buzz. Thousands of people will soon buy a copy of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Those who read expecting to discover a great work of narrative art, however, are going to be disappointed. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a competently written melodrama that only intermittently achieves anything resembling literary excellence.
Mathis is a graduate of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her work is not lacking in ambition. It begins in 1925, with teenage Hattie’s arrival in Philadelphia. An illness has beset her two infant children. They have names that sound beautiful and hopeful to her Southern ear: Philadelphia and Jubilee. And they are dying.
With a series of interlinked short stories, Mathis brings the narrative of Hattie’s progeny all the way up to the 1980s. We see her children grow up, and Hattie herself suffer into an embittered middle age.
The novel’s scope is epic, but its ambitions sink in a sea of flat prose, including many relentless waves of simple, declarative sentences. Mathis often gives us scenes that are devoid of all but the most generic physical details, with uninspired dialogue and cliched similes as filler.
Consider, for example, the passage in which Hattie’s sister Pearl arrives with her husband Benny to adopt one of Hattie’s children. By then, Hattie has so many mouths to feed, she’s on the dole to make ends meet.
It’s one of the most dramatic moments in the novel — but Mathis doesn’t have quite the linguistic gifts or artistic insight to make the scene come to life.
Hattie’s resentment toward her better-off sister produces a series of predictable observations rendered in a monotone of short sentences: “Benny opened Pearl’s door. He had always had good manners. Pearl was powdering her nose like a princess. She looked well-fed, manicured.”
Not all of the writing in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is that pedestrian. The novel begins with a vivid and tender description of the deaths of Hattie’s two babies as she scrambles across Philadelphia in a search for eucalyptus leaves and other country remedies to save them.
That scene is gut-wrenching because Mathis is able to portray Hattie as a disoriented innocent in the big city. But Mathis seems incapable of imagining her characters as anything but confused, distraught, or overwhelmed. Nor is she much interested in the physical, sensory world they inhabit.
One imagines that Philadelphia was a city vividly transformed by the great migration. But you won’t see Philadelphia come to life in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Mathis only provides a few street and neighborhood names to suggest the originality of the city where much of her story unfolds. The spirit of reinvention, possibility, and cultural tumult that defined those hopeful years is largely absent too.
Mathis is more successful, however, in her descriptions of the inner turmoil of two of Hattie’s sons: one a musician confused about his sexuality, the other a teenage preacher who’s heard the voice of God.
Hattie’s own emotional struggles as a mother of eight are given the stark, superficial treatment of your average afternoon talk show. Poor Hattie is pummeled again and again by fate and injustice. Her life as a character in this book is defined almost entirely by the fact that she bears children — again and again.
When Hattie argues with her largely useless husband, August, the dialogue has all the profundity of a television soap opera.
“You ain’t never tried to understand what it is to be a man out in this world,” August says.
“Don’t give me that line about how hard it is for Negroes,” Hattie answers. “I’m on the dole because you spend your money in the streets. I know it’s hard!”
Nothing, it seems, is able to liberate the characters in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie from the melodramatic prison in which Mathis has placed them.
As the year 1968 arrives, we find Hattie’s affluent, now-adult daughter caught in a kind of Victorian-era drawing-room drama with the hired help, without a hint of the seismic shifts in attitudes that are sweeping through the country.
Even the sex scenes in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie fall victim to Mathis’ matter-of-fact writing voice and its use of verbs — “emboldened,” “resolved” — more appropriate to a politician’s stump speech.
“He wanted her again, as she knew he would. He was emboldened by the previous evening,” Mathis writes, describing one encounter. “Bell resolved not to let Lawrence turn the affair into a romance.”
In the end, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a callow work by a writer of still unpolished talents. Our great novelists give us fully rounded characters whose lives reflect the limitations, the possibilities, and the wonder of the times in which they live. Mathis gives us a one-dimensional portrait of their suffering — and little else.