The first big breakout novel of 2013 was actually published in 2012, thanks to Oprah’s Book Club. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was originally scheduled to be published this month, but after Oprah’s big announcement, Knopf moved up the publication date. With recent reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, you name it, this one is getting lots of attention.
Hailed as the first novel of the Great Migration, it is at its root the story of a family — Hattie’s family. Toward the end of the book Hattie thinks back on her life: “She had been angry with her children, and with August, who’d brought her nothing but disappointment. Fate had plucked Hattie out of Georgia to birth eleven children and establish them in the North, but she was only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given.”
Hattie is only 16 when she marries August due to an unplanned pregnancy. Had she stayed in the south, in Georgia, she would have had family nearby to help with the children. Instead, she moves north to Philadelphia and is left essentially on her own, with tragic consequences. The transformation of Hattie from lively young girl to angry, stern mother happens between the first chapter and the next, in which her son Floyd is already a young man, making a living traveling town to town playing the trumpet in local dives. For the rest of the novel, spanning 1925 to 1980, the reader is immersed in the lives of her children, who are transformed by their mother’s lack of affection.
As one daughter, Bell, thinks, “She had never been afraid of anyone the way she was afraid of her mother, she had never been so angry with anyone and never wanted anyone to love her as much as she wanted Hattie’s love.”
We might wonder why Hattie moved north, or why she stayed, except that the author makes it perfectly clear in one split-second observation. Hattie emerges from the Philadelphia train station to see a young black woman purchasing flowers from a white flower cart vendor outside. The woman accidentally knocks over a few arrangements as she is leaving. “Hattie stiffened, waiting for the inevitable explosion. She waited for the other Negroes to step back and away from the object of violence that was surely coming. She waited for the moment in which she would have to shield her eyes from the woman and whatever horror would ensue. The vendor stooped to pick up the mess. The Negro woman gestured apologetically and reached into her purse again, presumably to pay for what she’d damaged. In a couple of minutes it was all settled, and the woman walked on down the street with her nose in the paper cone of flowers, as if nothing had happened.” In an instant the reader comprehends the difference between life in the north and life in the south.
I have a particular love of books (like Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout or The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien) that build a novel out of connected short stories. While Mark has written about how unpopular short story collections are with teens, I think the opposite could be prove true for this book. First, because the stories are about members of the same family, the reader begins each chapter acquainted with the world of the novel. And as the novel progresses the reader becomes more and more curious about the children they haven’t met yet.
Also in this book’s favor are the author’s vivid, engaging writing style and the fact that most of its characters, whether teens or adults when we meet them, are still searching for their place in life, confronting and/or committing racism, violence, abuse, infidelity, and mental illness. Teens will identify with the struggle, and be fascinated by the extremes that Hattie and her family experience.
And finally, I cannot resist sharing Ayana Mathis’s Five Life Choices. These are terrific ideas for teens, or for any age: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/01/ayana-mathis-twelve-tribes-of-hattie-life-choices_n_2366389.html
MATHIS, Ayana. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. 243p. Knopf. 2012. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-0-385-35028-0. LC 2012010779.
Adult/High School–In 1925, Hattie, 17-years-old and newly transplanted from rural Georgia to Philadelphia, loses her babies, twins, to pneumonia. This early tragedy combined with her disappointing marriage to August, the country boy she only dated to spite her mother, changes Hattie. The remaining chronological chapters read like connected short stories, each one introducing one or two of Hattie’s nine living children, all touched by her anger and distance. Floyd, a trumpeter, fears his homosexual tendencies when he sees the vicious treatment others receive. Six, physically scarred by a fire, becomes a tent preacher after he is sent south at age 15 to escape prosecution for almost killing another boy. The focus never shifts far from Hattie. In one chapter, she finds love with another man, and tries to run away with him. Bell, a teenager scarred by knowledge of her mother’s affair, later exacts a revenge that doubles back and almost kills her. In the next chapter, Hattie prepares for the ultimate sacrifice–giving her youngest daughter away to her sister Pearl and a more comfortable life down south. Although most of her children’s issues originate in their youth, in reaction to their mother’s harsh treatment, their concerns are largely adult. However, even as adults they struggle to find their way. Each chapter focuses on moments of transition, momentous decisions, or actions that determine their ultimate fate. This book is recommended to teens for its accessible writing, the author’s skill at juggling multiple dramatic stories and characters within a transparent structure, and for what these (never didactic or cliché) stories reveal of growing up poor and African American in 20th century America.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City