Tag Archives: African-Americans

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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Spotlight on The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

I am reading a spectacular debut by an exciting new literary talent.  It’s Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist, coming July 8 from W.WNorton & Company.

“Sleepers, awake!”

Resurecctionist n. (a). Hist. A body-snatcher; a resurrection man; (bgen. a person who resurrects something (lit. & fig.); (c) a believer in resurrection

About The Book:

resurrectionistA young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.

Nemo Johnston was one of many Civil War–era “resurrectionists” responsible for procuring human corpses for doctors’ anatomy training. More than a century later, Dr. Jacob Thacker, a young medical resident on probation for Xanax abuse and assigned to work public relations for his medical school’s dean, finds himself facing a moral dilemma when a campus renovation unearths the bones of dissected African American slaves—a potential PR disaster for the school. Will Jacob, still a stranger to his own history, continue to be complicit in the dean’s cover-up or will he risk his entire career to force the school to face its dark past?

First-time novelist Matthew Guinn deftly weaves historical and fictional truth, salted with contemporary social satire, and traditional Southern Gothic into a tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge—and a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining moral parable of the South.

 

 

 

 

About The Author:

A native of Atlanta, Matthew Guinn earned a BA in English from the University of Georgia. He continued graduate school at the Matthew_GuinnUniversity of Mississippi, where he met his wife Kristen and completed a master’s degree. At the University of South Carolina, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, he was personal assistant to the late James Dickey. In addition to the Universities of Mississippi and South Carolina, he has taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Tulane University’s School of Continuing Studies in Madison, Mississippi.

Matthew and Kristen live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their two children, Braiden and Phoebe.

 

 

Perspective-2-photo

“Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again.”

Historical Note: (from the book)

The events of The Resurrectionist are drawn from actual medical practice in the southern United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth.

Guinn is indebted to Abraham Flexner and Robert L. Blakely.

Abraham Flexner was a crusader for medical college reform in the early twentieth century; his report for the Carnegie resurrectionman02Foundation, entitled Medical Education in the United States and Canada, was published in 1910.  Flexner’s expose of the schools of his era–many of them rife with charlatanry, operated without regulation for pure profit–ushered in a new era of medical reform.  For sheer revelatory content, his report rivals any novelistic invention.

In 1989, the archaeologist Robert Blakely was called to the Medical College of Georgia when human remains were discovered in the earthen cellar of the campus’s oldest building during renovations.  His work, aided by the cooperation of MCG authorities, culminated in the publication of Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1997).  

Although Guinn changes names and locations, the character of Nemo Johnson is drawn from the enigmatic biography that Bones resurrectionman03in the Basement sketches of Grandison Harris, a slave purchased by the MCG faculty prior to the Civil War.  Harris functioned as the school’s janitor, butler, and body snatcher–or resurrectionist, in the parlance of the day.  With the faculty’s silent endorsement and support, Harris routinely pillaged Augusta’s African American cemetery, Cedar Grove, until his retirement in 1905.  Harris died in 1911, having never divulged his activities and without facing official censure for carrying out his nocturnal duties.  To date, the location of Grandison Harris’s remains in Cedar Grove is unknown.

Bookmagnet Says:

Prepare to be fascinated!

Here are some great websites to learn more:

Grandison Harris

My Georgia History

The legend

Purchase A Signed Copy From Lemuria Books

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Book Review: Wash by Margaret Wrinkle

wash

Wash by Margaret Wrinkle (Atlantic Monthly Press; 384 pages; $25).

            Two singular individuals, Richardson and Wash, bookend Margaret Wrinkle’s wisely assured debut, Wash.  Wrinkle, an Alabama native, uses Richardson and Wash to explore the inherent contradictions of slavery and freedom.  Although Richardson is white and Wash is black, the two men are both bound: Richardson by convention and Wash by the color of his skin.  Wash may be fiction, but Wrinkle writes this tale so credibly and accurately that the Old Southwest, with all its mayhem and turmoil, comes alive under her skilled hands.

Richardson had fought for freedom from tyranny in the Revolutionary War and had served his fledgling country in the War of 1812.  His father was an indentured servant.  During his last stint as a soldier, Richardson was captured by the British and chained as a prisoner of war.  His brief confinement, for him, was akin to being enslaved; not surprisingly, he did not like it very much.

By 1823, Richardson had settled in Tennessee and decided there was no more profit to be made in cotton.  Instead, he believed, the real money was in the procreation of slaves.  The United States government had banned slave importation from Africa in 1808; thus, the buying and selling of “countryborn,” or American-born slaves, was in high demand.

For Richardson, it’s pretty simple, really—he wants to make money.  He comes up with the idea to loan out his slave, Wash, to be a kind of “stud” to his neighbors.   The other masters line up to make appointments with Wash.  Every weekend, Wash visits certain female slaves and lies with them.  A slave midwife, Pallas, accompanies him to record their names and any resulting pregnancies and/or births.

“Wash” is short for Washington, a name Richardson bestowed on him at birth, a very common practice at the time.  As Wrinkle writes, Wash was the “first negro born to” Richardson, and he “wanted a name with some weight to it.”

When Wash does his duty, he travels deep inside himself, a technique he learned from his shamanistic West African mother.  Wash does not enjoy his position, even when it gives him opportunities not given to other slaves.  Wash would rather be with Pallas.

As the years pass, many children are born from Wash and the slave women.  Richardson gets a cut of exactly $200 for each child that is born.  Wash sees the irony.  Richardson gets “more than he bargained for” when Wash’s face and his ways begin “to crop up on most places round here. “  Richardson gave Wash “a big man’s name,” a name that Wash lives up to as he makes his “own country.”

Despite the money Richardson rakes in, he finds it difficult to sleep most nights.  He and other slaveholders like him worry that their slaves, who increasingly outnumber whites, will slaughter them in their beds as they sleep, just as Denmark Vesey planned to do in Charleston in 1822.  This fear was truly palpable for white masters.

Ironically, as whites fought in the revolution, taking up arms against their oppressors, their black slaves emulated their owners’ behavior time and again.  Most often, slaves resisted by running away, refusing to work, breaking tools, poisoning food, stealing animals, and many other minor rebellious acts.

Wrinkle truly shows just how “peculiar” the “peculiar institution” of slavery was in Wash when Richardson visits Wash at night to talk to him in the barn, Wash’s preferred place of rest.

A veteran of two wars, Richardson knows he himself fought for freedom from a tyrannical power.  He understands that holding men in bondage is antithetical to revolutionary ideals, but he is only one person and cannot abolish racial slavery.

Listening to Richardson at night, Wash entertains the thought of killing his master.  But Wash knows such an idea is futile and would mean his own death sentence.  So he listens to Richardson’s rationalizations and confessions, but sometimes Wash retreats deep inside.

Richardson does not like the idea of racial slavery, but he is shrewd enough to know that black servitude is too deeply entrenched socially, politically, culturally, psychologically, and economically.  Both Richardson and Wash are thus bound.

They are not the only ones.  Richardson’s daughter, Livia, highly intelligent, is bound by her gender.  William, Richardson’s son, seems to be the only character strong enough to strain his bonds as he marries a woman who is part African American.

Wrinkle provides the reader windows into the lives and workings of a motley crew of people in Wash, making the whole story richer and more satisfying.  Wrinkle provides fascinating insights into her characters and into the Old Southwestern frontier.  Wash is an intriguing character-driven story woven with history and African cultural traditions.  Wrinkle shows slaves and slave owners were constrained, bound together, despite the revolution.  Readers will learn more about the paradox of freedom and slavery in Wash than in any history book because Wrinkle brings it all to life so eloquently and masterfully.

Margaret Wrinkle

Margaret Wrinkle

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Book Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95).

12-5hattie_full_600

            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).

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, 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.

 

Mathis 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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Spotlight on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

13320466.jpg

Some of you may not believe this, but I used to read nothing but romance novels. Then, Oprah’s Book Club came along in 1996, and my reading tastes changed. Suddenly, the world of literary fiction was open to me. Oh, the things I had been missing!  I devoured SHE’S COME UNDONE by Wally Lamb; I read WHERE THE HEART IS by Billie Letts in one sitting.  The way  Barbara Kingsolver could tell a story fascinated me.  I soon learned that romance novelists had nothing on Bernhard Schlink–his THE READER was seductive and gripping.

I soon sought out other titles for myself and said goodbye to romance novels forever.  In 2010, Oprah ended her book club.  The news disappointed her fans, especially me. Earlier this year though, she launched the revamped Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, selecting as her first book WILD by Cheryl Strayed.

Oprah just announced her newest book club selection: THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE by Ayana Mathis.

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Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

“A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family.

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented.  Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave.  She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.

Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last—glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream, Mathis’s first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.”–from Goodreads

Here’s what Oprah said about the book:

“The opening pages of Ayana’s debut took my breath away,” said Winfrey, OWN CEO, “I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.”

Yes, Oprah compared Mathis to literary goddess Morrison. High praise, indeed!


t 201212-obc-twelve-tribes-1-300x205

THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE sounds like a great book. Mathis is sure to be a bright literary talent.

I’m reading THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE. Who wants to read along with me?

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Spotlight on May the Road Rise up to Meet You by Peter Troy

After much deliberation, I am about to start Peter Troy’s historical epic May the Road Rise up to Meet You.

Goodreads calls it: “An engrossing, epic American drama told from four distinct perspectives, spanning the first major wave of Irish immigration to New York through the end of the Civil War.”

“Four unique voices; two parallel love stories; one sweeping novel rich in the history of nineteenth-century America. This remarkable debut draws from the great themes of literature—famine, war, love, and family—as it introduces four unforgettable characters. Ethan McOwen is an Irish immigrant whose endurance is tested in Brooklyn and the Five Points at the height of its urban destitution; he is among the first to join the famed Irish Brigade and becomes a celebrated war photographer. Marcella, a society girl from Spain, defies her father to become a passionate abolitionist. Mary and Micah are slaves of varying circumstances, who form an instant connection and embark on a tumultuous path to freedom.

All four lives unfold in two beautiful love stories, which eventually collide. Written in gorgeous language that subtly captures the diverse backgrounds of the characters, and interspersed with letters, journals, and dreams, this unforgettable story, rendered in cinematic detail, is about having faith in life’s great meaning amidst its various tangles.”

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