If you have not yet heard if Ayana Mathis, get ready, because you are going to see her name everywhere. Her first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, has been chosen as the latest book for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. And that means Mathis has shot to literary stardom with unprecedented speed and she deserves it. Mathis is a brilliant writer and has heavy weights like Marrilynne Robinson backing her to prove it.
The problem is, I didn’t like The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. It is basically the story of Hattie’s twelve children and their lives in Philadelphia as part of the Great Northern Migration of African Americans. Each chapter is devoted to one of her children and the stories span from 1923 to the 1980s. Some of the chapters were absolutely breath taking. I especially liked the voice of the character in Vietnam. But for the most part, they were also overwhelmingly tragic. When the characters are down on their luck Mathis continues to plague them with more and more personal tragedies. These tragedies were even more painful because they were likely based in reality to a certain extent. It was one kick in the stomach after another. Reading it made me feel drained and listless.
In spite of dislike of the novel, I can see that it is an important novel. Like Toni Morrison, Mathis delves into and exposes important aspects of the African American experience in twentieth century America. It would not surprise me in the least if it became one of the great American novels.
Who would like this book? Obviously, Oprah’s loyal legions of followers will buy this book regardless of what I say. And buy it they should – it is an important novel. For those who like to read hefty tomes of great importance, then this book is for you. I like to read to escape and for that reason this book was not for me. It did not provide a happy escape or one iota of hope. But Mathis is a great writer, so lovers of finely crafted prose may also find this novel agreeable.