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'The Twelve Tribes of Hattie' Is Worth a Look

This first novel by Ayana Mathis is a family saga.

"The Twelve Tribes of Hattie," Ayana Mathis' debut novel, has been a huge hit with the imprimatur of Oprah's Book Club.

Without Oprah's backing, I'm not sure the book would have made the bestseller list, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a look.

The book opens as Hattie arrives in Philadelphia as a young woman who is part of the black migration from the South—in her case, Georgia—during the mid-1920s. After the initial devastating chapter about what befalls Hattie during her first winter in the city, the rest of the book explores her "tribes" or offspring in short-storyish tales that barely overlap or intersect in time or place.

Among Hattie's children are Floyd, a sexually confused musician drifting from town to town in 1948; Six, a newly minted revival tent preacher in 1950 who ends up exploiting his gifts; and Cassie, a mentally ill mother who has to be institutionalized in 1980, leaving an elderly Hattie to raise Cassie's daughter.

Mathis' writing has the noble bearing of a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The sentences are polished, sometimes overly so, and deliberate:

"Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren't already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones."

The novel's message—that Hattie's grief and poverty damaged every one of her children—may resonate with those still struggling with the aftereffects of the Great Recession. It's a bleak outlook, though, so be prepared for living under a thundercloud for as long as it takes to finish the book.

Mathis said in an interview with Oprah that "we do hunger more for suffering characters simply because people, I find, often are hesitant to discuss, air or seek support for the deepest and most painful things in their lives. And so in literature we can find companions and mirrors of [our own suffering]."

While there's some truth to that, I would have enjoyed the book more had Mathis given just one of Hattie's children a little joy and a sense of possibility. As it is, there's not much to stop the expanding circle of poverty and mental illness that Hattie puts in motion.

Editor's note: This article, part of Susan Schoenberger's "Nutmeg Book Review" column, previously was published by Granby-East Granby Patch.

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