January 11, 2013 8:00 pm

Promised land

One family’s struggle in 20th-century America

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis, Knopf, RRP$24.95/Hutchinson, RRP£12.99, 256 pages

 

Ayana Mathis’s first novel makes its epic intentions clear from the outset. The title, a biblical epigraph reminds us, refers to the 12 scattered tribes of Israel. In Mathis’s version the land to be explored is the US of the “Great Migration” – the early 20th-century exodus of millions of African-Americans from south to north in search of jobs and freedom from segregation – and the 12 tribes are the 11 children and grandchild of Hattie Shepherd.

Hattie, at 15, flees 1920s Georgia after her father’s murder. Within a year of arriving in Philadelphia, she has started her own family. Each chapter offers a glimpse of her descendants’ lives through marriages, crises and wars over the next six decades.

As the book begins, Hattie’s “tiny square of lawn was green as the first day of the world” but Hattie, recently orphaned herself, is immediately faced with trying to save her baby twins from pneumonia. Urging them to breathe, she clings to a migrant’s optimism: “All of those souls, escaped from the South, were at this very moment glowing with promise in the wretched winters of the cities of the North. Hattie knew her babies would survive.” They don’t, and their loss shapes the lives of Hattie and all her future offspring.

Mathis allows parts of her story to be told in the spaces between words, and between people. In a frustrating conversation between siblings who cannot connect, in conflicting memories of the same incident, or in an echo of a single word or act, she leaves just enough room between perspectives for the reader to understand another dimension of this family’s life. In chapters that could stand alone as short stories, she sets up small mysteries, with missing elements of one story often appearing quietly, and gratifyingly, in another. She revisits events that took place earlier that morning or decades before, yet handles these time travels with effortless fluency.

In Hattie, Mathis has created a paradox: an all-powerful matriarch who feels worn out, even cannibalised, by motherhood. Multiple viewpoints grant us a privileged intimacy with this complex protagonist. Readers share the unguarded moments when Hattie yearns for a private life, and see her too through her family’s memories of both her violence and her determination not to lose another child to poverty (“they had a hard look that was disturbing in a child’s face”; “Hattie had kept them all alive with sheer will and collard greens”). Most affecting are the restrained gestures of tenderness each child recalls.

The children’s fates divide along gender lines. Of those we meet as adults, the women are crippled by mental illness and half the men, like Hattie’s husband and lover, become womanisers or gamblers. More interesting are Billups, the least damaged child, despite his childhood abuse by a teacher, and Floyd, terrified at the thought of being gay in the 1940s. The daughters’ tormented inner lives are rendered exquisitely: Cassie’s first-person narration is a disturbing window into a mind ruled by voices; Alice’s loss of self in a class-elevating marriage is near-gothic, and Bell’s death wish makes for painful reading. But their most fascinating aspects remain the pieces they add to the puzzle of Hattie.

Racial inequality is a constant, heart-sinking theme. It is most poignantly laid bare through contrast, when the young Hattie arrives in the north and is amazed to see a white flower seller: “Before wrapping them in paper, he shook the water gently from the stems. The Negro woman handed him the money. Had their hands brushed?” Weariness with everyday injustice and violence surfaces in oppressive imagery: Hattie’s husband wakes “to the sun beating on him with two fists”.

Hattie’s tribes found much darkness in 20th-century America, and the land is not a promising one. But both Hattie and her daughter speak separately of “sparks flying upward in dark places, trying to stay alight though they were compelled toward ash”. Light emerges, in the end, with a one-word intervention that suggests a turn in the family’s path.

This is a bold debut that sets out to address the huge themes of motherhood and US history through the tale of one dysfunctional family, and succeeds.

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