Bookstores crumble under Amazon’s hegemony. Book sections vanish into journalism’s glory days. And book critics fade behind a cacophony of online reviews.
But Oprah abides!
In the latest demonstration of Her awesome power, the talk-show diva smiled early on a debut novel scheduled for release in January. Knopf, one of the nation’s most prestigious publishers, immediately bowed to O’s wishes, more than doubled its print run and moved the release up a month — into the publishing wasteland of mid-December.
More power to her. So what if all the important best-of-the-year lists have already appeared (along with the National Book Awards)? Nothing is more valuable than that “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker on the dust jacket, which guarantees Ayana Mathis’s novel a vastly larger audience than it might have drawn.
Making the selection for what she now calls her Book Club 2.0, Winfrey invoked the name of the author of one of her earlier picks, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, but that’s potentially misleading. Although they both write about the travails of African American women, Mathis is a more accessible writer. Her prose style, polished at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is clean and transparent, and though she manipulates time and chronology in sophisticated ways, she never leaves us, as Morrison sometimes does, in the dense mist of her private vision (see: “A Mercy”).
“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” falls into that growing tradition of books that hover somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories — an unintended effect, perhaps, of the workshop setting that so many writers pass through nowadays. Like the chapters in Kevin Powers’s Iraq war novel “The Yellow Birds,” sections of Mathis’s book cry out for anthologizing, but their effect grows richer and more complex as they accrue.
The first chapter, set in 1925, is a fever dream of parental panic, a tale about the death of infant twins that suggests “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” will be the kind of overwrought maternal tragedy that Winfrey is too often unfairly charged with favoring. In fact, Mathis has something more subtle in store. The next chapter picks up two decades later, and each subsequent chapter jumps ahead a few years, rotating through the lives of Hattie Shepherd’s many children — “the twelve tribes.”
Among the wonders of Mathis’s storytelling is her ability to orient us gracefully in each of these new settings. Some of Hattie’s children have wandered far, others have remained under her care, but none can escape the infection of her anger, her incurable resentment at her husband, “the greatest mistake of her life,” who subjects her to “these endless pregnancies.”
The first adult child we meet is 22-year-old Floyd, an itinerant trumpet player who has his pick of fans after every gig. The subject of this moving story is all its own, but Mathis quickly establishes themes that run throughout the remaining chapters. Despite his promiscuous treatment of women, what really troubles Floyd is his attraction to other men. Twenty years before Stonewall, this young musician has no way to comprehend himself except in the tropes laid down by his family’s church — as an abomination, a Judas. Far from home, Floyd feels “like a kite broken off from its string.” His increasingly reckless desire is “a thing too awful to be tolerated.” Denying his affections, “Floyd smelled his cowardice; he was all rot inside.”
While a violently homophobic culture exacerbates Floyd’s self-loathing, that desperate sense of inadequacy is the horrible legacy Hattie has left to all the children she raised with such ferocious single-mindedness. They yearn to be normal, settled, respectable — to grasp the prize that has eluded their mother. Healthy or sick, successful or impoverished, none of them ever feel the balm of her love. Even her glad-handing husband thinks, “If she would stop hating him for one day, one hour, he’d have the strength to do the right thing by her.”
That longing for her approval takes a fascinating turn in the story of Six, Hattie’s runty teenage son. Badly scalded in a childhood accident, he grows up seething with rage but also prone to fits of divine eloquence. In church, grace comes “on him like a seizure and then [leaves] him . . . frail and hurting,” Mathis writes. “He knew his Jesus spells were another indicator that he was a freak, not merely of body but of spirit. His soul was susceptible to God’s whimsy, just as his body was susceptible to any opportunistic thing that might hurt it.” Sent away to preach in Alabama church revivals when he’s just 15, Six regards his ability to inspire and heal as a curse, a power that makes him feel inadequate and fraudulent. This enthralling chapter, laced with allusions to the Gospels, delves into knotty issues of spirituality and doubt in ways that recall the work of John Updike and Marilynne Robinson.
As these tragic tales play out and the death of her twins fades from immediacy, there’s a risk that Hattie will seem just a harridan, a frigid wife, an angry mother who whispers at one point, “Somebody always wants something from me. They’re eating me alive.” But Mathis returns to her again and again, adding new dimensions to this portrait of a matriarch constantly struggling against poverty and disappointment. “How was she supposed to bear a life like this?” she wonders. We see her abandon a chance for romance in favor of her family’s survival, and in the novel’s most breathtaking chapter, she considers a sacrifice that will kill her.
Too many writers of literary fiction tend to stage intimate stories in the hermetically sealed worlds of their own clever imaginations, but Mathis never loses touch with the geography and the changing national culture through which her characters move. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is infused with African Americans’ conflicted attitudes about the North and the South during the Great Migration. After fleeing Georgia with her widowed mother, young Hattie vows never to leave Philadelphia, where she and her children eventually settle for good, but the past holds a tempting allure for many of these regional refugees. Fears about how they’ll be judged, by white people and fellow black residents, inform the attitudes and longings of these women for decades. “They were, most of them, perpetually donning and polishing their northern-city selves,” Mathis writes, “molting whatever little southern town they or their families had come from five or ten or twenty years before . . . or bragging about their families’ wide porches in whatever good Negro neighborhood they’d lived in, which was just a roundabout way of demanding that Philadelphia give them their due.”
In the long family arc that Mathis describes, the painful life of one remarkably resilient woman is placed against the hopes and struggles of millions of African Americans who held this nation to its promise. Without Oprah’s intervention, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” might have been one of the greatest novels of 2013. But now — just in time — it’s certainly one of the best of 2012.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
By Ayana Mathis
Knopf. 243 pp. $24.95