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Updated: October 5, 2013 19:51 IST

History’s brood

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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; Ayana Mathis, Random House, Rs.550.
The Hindu
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; Ayana Mathis, Random House, Rs.550.

A powerful narrative of race and slavery that chronicles six eventful decades in the U.S.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Ayana Mathis’s debut novel. Hattie, her mother and two sisters, Pearl and Marion, fled from Georgia in a Negro car to Philadelphia during the early 1920s. Hattie’s father had been killed in his smithy.

It had happened in broad daylight, Hattie had witnessed the “two white men from town walking away from his shop without enough shame to quicken their pace or hide their guns…she could not unsee it”.

The novel is about the “high yellow girl” Hattie Shepherd, who began courting August when she was 15 because he was a secret from her Mama and “because it thrilled her to go out with a country boy beneath her”.

They married when Hattie discovered she was pregnant with her twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. Unfortunately it is 1925, before penicillin has been discovered and the infants succumb to pneumonia before they turn one.

“Not a day went by that Hattie did not feel their absence in the world, the empty space where her children’s lives should have been.” The nine other children she goes on to have consider their mother to be cold and frosty, yet she finally learns to (according to Willie, the witch doctor) wrestle down her “restless soul”. Hattie’s tribe of 12 consists of her children and one grandchild in particular, Sala.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is set across 60 crucial years of North American history, beginning with the Prohibition era and concluding in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected President. Ayana Mathis sketches the evangelical gatherings in revival tents where Six delivers his first sermon, the blues-jazz music that Floyd plays, war in Vietnam that Franklin experiences firsthand, the child sexual abuse that Billups keeps secret, Bell’s slide down the social ladder and her near brush with death due to consumption, and Cassie’s schizophrenia. Each chapter is absorbing but disconcertingly remains centred on Hattie.

This is where the Hagar myth that looms large in African-American literature resonates well. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, offered her Egyptian slave to her husband when she was barren. Hagar had Ishmael by Abraham. Later when Sarah had Isaac, God promised Hagar that Ishmael would create a nation. Similarly Hattie’s children spread far and wide, across the nation and the social ladder to leave their mark.

The details in the novel that document history are accurate — the revival tents for evangelical gatherings, discovery of penicillin, the recognition that schizophrenia required medical treatment, the limitations of a witch doctor, the social acceptance of an African-American doctor.

Ayana Mathis is a powerful storyteller but it is impossible to get away from the feeling that this is a brilliant product of a creative writing course.

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.

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