Category Archives: paperbacks

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Vintage; 320 pages; $15.95).

One of my favorite novels from 2012 is now available in paperback.  Trust me–you’ll love it.

Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

hattie paperbackHattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

ayana-mathis-AUTHORMathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial; 368 pages; $15.99)

 

Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Round House is quite a departure from her previous novels.  Typically, Erdrich writes from multiple 16248070perspectives, with each narrative contributing a little window into a larger world.  She switches gears with The Round House, winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction.  Joe Coutts, her primary narrator and an Ojibwe Indian, recalls a horrific crime that occurred when he was thirteen.  A cacophony of voices is unnecessary inThe Round House; Joe drives Erdrich’s story, and his voice speaks volumes.

Like Erdrich’s previous works, The Round House is set on a North Dakota Indian reservation.  Erdrich is part Chippewa, and problems facing Native American communities mean a great deal to her, as they should to us all.  In The Round House, she once again tackles difficult subjects, such as violence against women, crime, and, most glaringly, the injustice of the law.  Unlike her other books, The Round House features an unforgettable young boy on the cusp of adulthood, who transfixes us with his strong, intimate narrative.

Erdrich sets her story in the spring of 1988.  Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is badly beaten and raped.  To the consternation of Joe and his father, Bazil, a judge, Geraldine is reluctant to tell what happened or even where the crime occurred.  Father and son are further dismayed when Geraldine retreats from them and spends her days in bed, eating little and saying nothing.  Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she is a shell of her former self.

Bazil begins investigating the rape and enlists Joe’s aid.  The boy is more than eager to help his father find the culprit.  Bazil knows that he shouldn’t put so much pressure on a boy of 13; he knows he has told Joe too much.  It is too late, however.  Joe is already fixated.

“I wanna get him,” Joe tells his friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack.  Joe wants to avenge his mother and watch the culprit burn.  His love for her is so bright and fierce that he seeks to kill his mother’s rapist.  “Mom, listen,” he tells her.  “I’m going to find him and I’m going to burn him.  I’m going to kill him for you.”

You’d think Joe would not have to make this promise.  You’d think the police would investigate, find the accused, and prosecute him.  It’s not that simple on an Indian reservation, where jurisdiction is key.

Geradline was raped in the round house, a sacred space to the Ojibwe Indians, where they practiced religious ceremonies.  And there lies the conundrum.  An Indian did not commit the crime; a white man is to blame, a man who loathes Indians.  A crime was committed, but “on what land?  Was it tribal land?  Fee land?  White property?  State?  We can’t prosecute if we don’t know which laws apply.”

It seems the rapist violated Geraldine in this sacred space deliberately.  He knew what he was doing and where he was doing it.  In all likelihood, he will not be charged with anything.

Joe cannot let that happen and will use any means necessary to get his revenge.  He will enlist his friends; he will sift through his father’s old case files; he will seek advice from his grandfather; he will garner information from the twin sister of the accused.  If the law is unjust, then Joe will seek his own vigilante justice.

The Round House is part coming-of-age story and part crime novel.  Erdrich uses humor and pop culture to show how Joe and his friends are obsessed withStar WarsStar Trek, and girls.  The boys are so close that they would do anything for each other.  Their closeness reflects the tight-knit community they call home, where everybody knows everybody and where everyone looks out for everyone else.  Whatever happens, they will insulate the boys from reprisal.  In a sense, when Geraldine is raped and beaten, the whole town is violated.

Since Joe looks back on these events from an adult viewpoint, he is able to view the crime from two perspectives simultaneously: child and adult.  Joe puts an adult spin on things whenever he can, yet Erdrich manages to capture how the crime shattered his innocence and stole his childhood.  The offense against Geraldine turns Joe into a man.  The crime affected Joe so much that he went on to study law; eventually, Joe becomes a lawyer.  He can tell the story then from a son’s eye, yet with a lawyer’s keen focus.

The Round House illustrates how a senseless crime can forever change a town, a community, a family, and a young man.  Lives are overturned, and relationships are altered.  Yet a boy discovers the power of friendship and understands the meaning of giving one’s word.  That same youth becomes a man in this tale and finds his life’s calling– to seek justice even in the unlikeliest of places.  Erdrich instinctively knows when it takes a chorus to tell a story and when only one voice is needed.

The Round House is now available in paperback with a new and arresting cover.  Winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction, Erdrich’s story is definitely worthy of a read.

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May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Book Review: May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes (Penguin Books; 496 pages; $16).

17707741If your family is anything like the Silvers in A.M. Homes’ black comedy May We Be Forgiven, you’re glad the holidays are over.  Homes is fierce and fearless in her depiction of a Twenty-First century family in crisis.  She knows just how to blend satire with realism, just how to mix tragedy with comedy, and just how to make her pages sizzle.

Homes’ characters are deeply flawed people, yet they are nothing but real.  Harold Silver, the novel’s main character, cannot help but be jealous of his little brother, George.  While Harold is a Richard Nixon scholar and historian, his brother is a powerful and wealthy television executive with a beautiful wife, two children, and a gorgeous home.   What Harold doesn’t envy about George is his violent temper.

The dominoes fall one by one when George gets into a car accident, killing a mother and father and injuring and orphaning their young son.  If that were not enough for one week, George snaps when he comes home to find his wife in bed with Harold.  He grabs the bedside lamp and hits her over the head with it.  These are not spoilers.  They happen within the novel’s first fifteen pages.

The story is not about these events anyway: rather, May We Be Forgiven is about how Harold seeks atonement for his part in the tragedy.  He blames himself.  If he had not been having an affair with his sister-in-law, then perhaps he could have averted catastrophe.  Harold becomes the guardian of his brother’s children, Nate and Ashley.  He also feels responsible for the orphaned boy.  As Harold assumes a new life so different from the one he had before, he seeks absolution.

Although Homes’ characters are completely unlikeable and unrelatable, they are strangely fascinating.  Harold is Homes’ most well-developed character.  When he is asked to edit a series of fictional stories written by Nixon, Harold jumps at this opportunity.  He sees Nixon as a father figure.  As Harold tries to atone for his own misdeeds, he seeks to assuage history’s view of the president.  It makes for compelling reading.

In fact, I challenge you to stop reading this story.  Once you start, you cannot stop.  Homes’ pacing is quick.  Her punches are like those of a boxer’s.  Surprises permeate on every page.

Sometimes, though, it is just too much.  It is as if Homes tries to one-up herself on every page, producing an over-abundance of shocking scenes with little or no segue between them.  Reading Homes’ novel can be like running a marathon, leaving you gasping for breath.  Homes, in certain instances, goes too far, most notably when Harold instructs his niece on how to use a tampon.  Shock value is a tool that should not be overused, even when writing a black comedy.  A little can go a long way.

Homes is unapologetically irreverent in May We Be Forgiven.  That’s why this is not a book for everyone.  If you enjoy dark comedies, you will love this story.  If you are not a fan of black comedy, stay far away.

I reviewed this novel last year and it’s now available in paperback.  I absolutely love the new cover!

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