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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
A debut of extraordinary distinction: through the trials of one unforgettable family, Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration, a story of love and bitterness and the promise of a new America.
In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother's monumental courage and the journey of a nation.
Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis's The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last - glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream, Mathis's first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.
Lawrence had just given the last of his money to the numbers man when Hattie called him from a public telephone a few blocks from her house on Wayne Street. Her voice was just audible over the street traffic and the baby's high wail. "It's Hattie," she said, as though he would not recognize her voice. And then, "Ruthie and I left home." Lawrence thought for a moment that she meant she had a free hour unexpectedly, and he might come and meet them at the park where they usually saw each other.
"No," she'd said. "I packed my things. We can't . . . we're not going back."
They met an hour later at a diner on Germantown Avenue. The lunch rush was over, and Hattie was the lone customer. She sat with Ruthie propped in her lap, a menu closed on the table in front of her. Hattie did not look up as Lawrence approached. He had the impression that she'd seen him walk in and had turned her head so as not to appear to be looking for him. A cloth satchel sat on the floor next to her: embroidered, somber hued, faded. A bit of white fabric stuck up through the latch. He felt a rush of tenderness at the sight of the bag flopping on the linoleum.
Lawrence lifted the satchel onto the seat as he slid into the booth. He reached across and tickled Ruthie's cheek with his finger. He and Hattie had never discussed a future seriously. Oh, there had been plenty of sighs and wishes in the afternoon hours after they made love: they had invented an entire life out of what-ifs and wouldn't-it-be-nices. He looked at her now and realized their daydreams were more real to him than he'd allowed himself to believe.
Lawrence wasn't a man who got hung up on ideals or lofty sentiment; he had lived pragmatically as far as his emotions were concerned. He had a car and nice suits, and he had only infrequently worked for white men. He left his family behind in Baltimore when he was sixteen, and he had built himself up from nothing without any help from anyone. And if he had not been able to save his mother from becoming a mule, at least he had never been one himself. For most of his life, this had seemed like the most important thing, not to be anybody's mule. Then Hattie came along with all of those children, that multitude of children, and she didn't have a mark of them on her. She spoke like she'd gone to one of those finishing schools for society Negro girls that they have down south. It was as though she'd been dropped into a life of squalor and indignities that should not have been hers. With such a woman, if he would only try a bit harder, he might become a family man. It is true that he had not met Hattie's children, but their names Billups and Six and Bell were seductive as the names of foreign cities. In his imagination they were not so much children as they were small docile copies of Hattie.
"What happened?" he asked Hattie. Ruthie kicked at her swaddling. She looked very like him. The old wives' tale says babies look like their fathers when they are new to the world. Ruthie was light-skinned like him and Hattie, lighter than August. Of course, Lawrence had not seen Hattie's other children and could not know that most of them were this same milky tea color.
"Did August put his hands on you?" Lawrence asked.
"He's not that kind of man," she answered sharply.
"Anybody is, if his manhood is wounded enough."
Hattie looked at him in alarm.
"A lot of men, I mean," Lawrence said.
Hattie turned her face to the window. She would need moneythat was certainand they would be able to spend more time together now that August knew the truth. Lawrence could put her up somewhere. It occurred to him now that his choices were two: run from the diner and never see her again or become, all at once, a man of substance and commitment.
Excerpted from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Oprah's Book Club 2.0) by Ayana Mathis. Copyright © 2012 by Ayana Mathis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Ayana Mathis's debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a stunning, penetrating portrait of a woman through the eyes of her children. Hattie arrives in Philadelphia in 1923, as part of the Great Migration, the huge tide of African Americans that left the South for other areas of the United States between 1910-1970. Full of hope for the future and amazed by the differences between her childhood home in Georgia and the progressive northern city, she marries August and has twins. She names the children Philadelphia and Jubilee to celebrate the brightness of her new life. As the story unfolds, and disappointments accrue, Hattie's initial vibrancy fades to a terse, hard-lipped discontent. Each year brings a new child and another mouth to feed. August's devotion to his wife ends at the jingle of the local juke and the sashay of another woman's skirts. Hattie's challenges seem insurmountable, but she remains devoted to her children.
In fact, devotion and its intersection with love is one of the central ruminations of the novel. As each of the children and grandchildren tells his or her own story, we see how Hattie's deep sadness as a young mother impacts her ability to connect to most of her children. She fulfills her duty towards her other children clothes and feeds them but she is unable to connect with them in a substantive way. As each chapter unfolds, we can see the damage wrought and understand that the narrators perceive Hattie's fulfillment of duty as an absence of love, rather than their mother's expression of it. In contrast, August is full of love for his children, greeting the announcement of each pregnancy with joy. He plays with them, laughs with them. At one point, Hattie looks on with resentment as August laughs with the children, noting that for all she has done for them, they will love August more than they love her.
The title alludes to the twelve tribes of Israel, a biblical tale about the twelve sons of Jacob, who each fathered a tribe that occupied different territories in Israel. Just as the tribes created by Jacob's sons occupied different territories but collectively composed Israel, each of Hattie's children captures disparate parts of the black experience in mid-20th century America. Mathis deftly illustrates these various examples without resorting to stereotype. The narrators speak in their own voices, and it is remarkable how Mathis captures a unique tone and voice for each character. Each child narrates an immediate reality Franklin in Vietnam dreams about reconnecting with this estranged wife, Six preaches at a religious rally in the deep South but each returns to experiences with Hattie.
The narrative structure of the novel is intriguing, and somewhat like a puzzle. For example, although Hattie is the titular character, she is rarely allowed the opportunity to provide her own perspective. The effect is powerful and subtle. Each chapter provides information that creates a complete picture of a proud, intelligent, and ultimately, trapped woman. By the end, we see that the novel, though told through many different voices and perspectives, is a perfect transformational arc, a process that has brought Hattie to a place of understanding and change. Some critics have argued that the novel is uneven and that a more seasoned author would have been able to tie the disparate strands of each child's tale more artfully together. Though certain elements of the novel are dropped and never reclaimed (Does musician Floyd ever find his homosexual lover Lafayette after the fight in the bar, for example), these dead ends are easily forgiven when it is considered that these chapters are not primarily about the children but about the children's interaction with and reaction to Hattie. Rather than a series of short stories told by people who, one critic argues, "do not even seem to be related," this is a unique exploration of a woman's experience from the perspective of her children. From this view, the novel's "dead ends" are seen as merely unimportant narrative strands compared to the larger purpose of describing Hattie's evolution as a woman and mother.
Hattie's growth is folded into larger explorations of the dream deferred, the transfer of pain through generations, the disappointment and regret of failed relationships. There is little happiness in this novel, but by the end it is clear that Hattie understands the role she has played in her children's lives and that more tenderness with her dutifulness would have gone a long way. The ending promises hope.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie establishes Ayana Mathis as a gifted writer, one who will be watched with excitement. Fans of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin will find another favorite in this powerful new talent.
Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker
Rated of 5
by Diane S.
The book opens with a heart rendering tragedy which quickly captures the reader's interest. The great migration, the early 1900's and a mother with her three daughters move to Philadelphia to escape the Jim Crow south. Things do not work out as planned, Hattie has a hard life but does manage to keep nine children alive with very little help. Hattie is a formidable character, she has a strength and resiliency that keeps her going, but this does not mean she does not carry hurts and scars. The structure of this novel was a bit difficult for me to get used to at first. It is divided and narrated in chapters by some of her children, her husband and Hattie herself. The ones narrated by Hattie were my favorite. This novel follows Hattie and her children for over a decade, and by the end of the book I really felt for Hattie and love the fact that even at the end of the book she never gives up hope. A well written first novel, told in very matter of fact prose, in somewhat of a different narrative style. Well worth reading.
The Great Migration describes a large-scale movement of African-Americans out of the South between 1910 and 1970. Hattie, moving from Georgia to Philadelphia, would have no doubt agreed with Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson's assessment of the Great Migration as "six million black Southerners moving out of the terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest."
African Americans began to leave the South shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but in small numbers. By the turn of the 20th century, though, segregation, lynchings, and few employment opportunities in the South, forced many blacks to seek their fortunes elsewhere. So many left during this period, in fact, that African-American population growth froze for a period in Southern states. Some areas in the Deep South even experienced African-American population decline across the 'black belt,' where the cotton crop had been most prominent. In 1910, African-Americans made up half the population in South Carolina and Mississippi and more than 40% in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. By 1970, only Mississippi had an African-American population that totaled over 30% of the entire population.
African Americans moved out of the South to urban areas in the North and West, primarily Detroit, Chicago, and New York City. They moved as individuals, or like Hattie, with a few family members. There was no government assistance to help with the moves, but often industries, like railroads, meatpacking, and stockyards would recruit people. This sometimes led to racial tensions with recent European immigrants, particularly the Irish, who had been recruited for the same jobs and had to compete for the same housing.
By the end of the Great Migration in 1970, a community that had been tied to rural farms at the beginning of the 20th century was mainly comprised of urbanized, industrial workers with 80% of the total population living in cities. This migration transformed Northern cities. Chicago, for example, had a 2% African-American population before 1910, but by 1970 African Americans made up 33% of the city. However, by 1965 the migration had begun to slow. A small reverse migration began around this time, with some older African Americans returning to the South.
Picture from historycentral.com
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