Tag Archives: American history

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 Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $27.95).

Throughout history and fiction, women have disguised themselves as men; it is quite uncommon, though, for a boy to disguise good-lord-bird1.jpghimself as a girl and continue the charade for decades.  However, that is just what Little Onion does in James McBride’s brilliant and exhilarating novel The Good Lord Bird.  McBride re-imagines the life of John Brown and his followers while simultaneously fashioning a remarkable and amusing character in the form of Little Onion.  Through Little Onion’s eyes, McBride recreates Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, one of the most crucial chapters in American history and one that helped spark the Civil War.

History has shown us just how charismatic Brown could be, but the magnetic Little Onion steals the spotlight from Brown time and again.  Born in Kansas Territory, young Henry Shackleford is a slave when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions make the state a battleground, hence the term “Bleeding Kansas.”  Brown arrives and gets involved in an argument in a local barber shop.  The ensuing act of violence forces Brown to flee—with Henry in tow.  The kicker is that Brown thinks Henry is a girl named Henrietta.  Henry does not tell Brown the truth about his gender.

“Truth is,” McBride writes, “lying come natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss.  Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.  So I weren’t going to tell him nothing about me being a boy.”

If that does not make you laugh or at least smile, consider this: Henry is skilled at the art of zinging one-liners and entertains even in the gravest of situations.  When Brown goes off on tangents, Henry admits, “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

The young slave “girl” makes a big impression on Brown when “she” eats his good-luck charm—an onion.  From that moment on, Brown calls Henry “Little Onion.”  McBride’s two main characters play well off each other and make for humorous reading.

Little Onion’s masquerade also has a serious side and allows McBride to portray Henry as a trickster.  Henry’s charade is a variation of the traditional African trickster tale.  These stories, which originated in Africa and were part of the oral history of African American slaves, served as thinly-disguised social protest against white masters and featured animals as the main characters instead of real people.  In these parables, small, weak, seemingly powerless animals used their cunning to outwit larger, powerful creatures.  A rabbit might represent the weaker animal while a wolf stood for the larger one as is the case with the Briar Rabbit tales.  Whites saw such stories as fables, nothing more.  For slaves, the tales were altogether different and meaningful.  The allegories symbolically assaulted the powerful, who worked to ensnare slaves but who became themselves ensnared.  Trickster tales sought to upset traditional social roles and served as a vehicle allowing slaves to ridicule whites and get away with it.  By fooling John Brown, Henry sees himself as one-upping the white man.  His ruse works well, and that is a credit to McBride’s ingenuity.

James_McBrideMcBride cleverly juxtaposes drama and history with comedy and humor.  Uproarious laughs pepper Little Onion’s encounters with historical figures.  The funniest of these occurs when he meets Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), reformer, abolitionist, and former slave.  Upon their first meeting, Little Onion says, “Morning, Fred.”  Douglass is livid: “Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”  A few pages later, an inebriated Douglass makes a pass at Henrietta and mistakenly calls her “Harlot” before finally saying “Don’t marry two women at once…Colored or white, it’ll whip you scandalous” (In The Good Lord Bird, Douglass commits bigamy as he is married to Anna Murray-Douglass and Ottilie Assing, a German journalist.  In actuality, Douglass never married Assing, but McBride’s vision makes for interesting reading).

Henry Shackleford may be a figment of McBride’s imagination but as you read this novel you forget that it’s fiction. McBride brings his characters to life like you’ve never seen them before.  A multi-faceted and marvelous story, The Good Lord Bird explores identity, home, place, survival, slave life, and how far a man will go for a cause.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-telling one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.

Breaking News–The Good Lord Bird has been longlisted for a 2013 National Book Award in fiction.  It’s my pick because I absolutely love it!

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Spotlight on The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

good lord bird

About The Book:

From Riverhead Hardcover

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

About The Author:

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, “The Color of Water,” is considered an American James_McBrideclassic and read in schools and universities across the United States. His debut novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” was translated into a major motion picture directed by American film icon Spike Lee. It was released by Disney/Touchstone in September 2008. James also wrote the script for the film, now available on DVD. His novel, “Song Yet Sung,” was released in paperback in January 2009. His new novel about American revolutionary John Brown will be released in Feb. 2013. His latest work is the August 2013 film “Red Hook Summer” which he co-wrote and co-produced with acclaimed director Spike Lee.

James is the worst dancer in the history of African Americans, bar none, going back to slavetime and beyond. He should be legally barred from dancing at any party he attends. He dances with one finger in the air like a white guy.

He is also a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine and The Washington Post. His work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

James toured as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott among others. He has also written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Purafe, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney but wishes he did. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical “Bo-Bos” co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Musical Tour was captured in a nationallly televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

James is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Bookmagnet Says:

I cannot stop thinking about McBride’s newest novel.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-imagining one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.  I absolutely loved it and plan on reviewing the book next week.

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Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

(Simon & Schuster; 512 pages; $27.50).

manson Prior to the publication of Jeff Guinn’s book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Vincent Bugliosi’s national bestseller Helter Skelter was the definitive volume on Manson, his followers, and the series of murders his minions committed (the most famous of which was actress Sharon Tate) in August 1969.  Guinn has written a fascinating and essential biography of the cult leader and notorious killer.  To understand Manson and his era, Guinn’s take on the 78-year-old infamous murderer is not only important but necessary.

Charles Manson was pure evil personified.  Guinn writes, “There was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie—he was an opportunistic sociopath.”  Guinn begins by effectively charting Manson’s history of incarceration. Both Manson’s mother and his uncle were imprisoned, and their tendency to commit crimes seems to have been passed down to Charlie. Interestingly, Manson spent more time in jail than he did out of it.

It was in prison where Charlie first read Dale Carnegie’s self-help book How To Win Friends and Influence People.  This was the one instance in which Manson himself was a convert.  Guinn shines as he takes Manson to San Francisco in the late 1960s, where he used Carnegie’s methods on young girls who were down on their luck and desperately searching for something.  Or someone.

Manson convinced the young women that they were all looking for him; he knew just how to manipulate them.  Using sex and drugs, Manson eliminated their super egos and eradicated all their barriers.  This insured they would do anything he asked of them.  Although he had trouble reading, Guinn suggests that Manson was especially savvy and intelligent, especially when it came to influencing people.

Since Los Angeles was the center of everything in the 1960s, particularly music, Manson and his cohorts settled there.  It was not long before they were hanging out with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and even Neil Young.  In fact, Gregg Jakobson, talent scout, session arranger, and good friend of Wilson’s, first used the term “the Family” to describe Manson and his followers.  The name stuck.

Manson hoped to get a recording contract but producers, like Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, passed.  However, Manson and his devotees still managed to spend around $100,00 of Wilson’s money and also obtained funds from Didi Lansbury, daughter of actress Angela Lansbury.  Eerily, Manson sent his people off on “creepy crawls,” where they would break into a house at night and, while the owners slept, rearrange their belongings.  Manson ordered his disciples not to steal anything, and they obeyed him.  Only when the unsuspecting home owners awoke would they realize their homes had been violated.  On one such creepy crawl, Manson’s acolytes broke into the home of John and Michelle Phillips of the musical group The Mamas and the Papas.

Guinn convincingly places Manson within his historical era.  The author writes, “The unsettling 1960s didn’t create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.”   The atmosphere of the late 60s was perfect for someone like Charlie, and he took full advantage of the tumult, even instilling fears of a race war, “Helter Skelter,” into his followers.

When Manson’s hopes for a career in music were dashed, he feared he would become lessened in the eyes of his supporters.  For a cult leader, this was unthinkable.  He had to act.  He had to somehow bind them to him forevermore.  He had to make them kill for him, Guinn maintains.  And they, good little soldiers that they were, did exactly that.

A significant portion of Manson is devoted to August of 1969 and the gruesome Tate and LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial in which Bugliosi served as chief prosecutor.  I have read Helter Skelter eight to ten times, yet so much of what Guinn wrote was new to me.  He interviewed many of those involved, some of whom had never spoken to any other writer before.  Guinn’s never-before-revealed information kept a decades-old crime intriguing, fresh, and compelling.

Manson belongs right next to Helter Skelter.  The two books of true crime complement each other nicely and should be read together for maximum effect.  They are two very different books.  The emphasis in Helter Skelter was on the trial and its preparation.  Bugliosi provided sketches of most of the people involved from the victims to the perpetrators to those knowledgeable.  While Manson was an important part of Helter Skelter, he was not the primary focus.  Guinn’s chilling and informative book, in contrast, is all about Manson.  You may think you know the story, but Guinn’s new material will have you glued to the page.

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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: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (St. Martin’s Press; 336 pages; $24.99).

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            William Shakespeare wrote that the course of true love never did run smooth, and nowhere is that truer than in Julie Kibler’s sobering, yet heartening debut Calling Me Home.  Kibler drew inspiration for her tale after learning her grandmother had fallen in love with an African American when she was a young woman.  At the time, though, any romantic connection between the two was unfeasible.  A story idea was thus born.

Employing a dual narrative format, Kibler sets Calling Me Home in both present-day Texas and in pre-World War II Kentucky, introducing us to two extraordinary women: eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister, an elderly white lady and thirty-something Dorrie Curtis, a single black mother of two.

Isabelle has a huge favor to ask of Dorrie, something so big she cannot ask anyone else.  She has to go to a funeral in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she has to leave tomorrow.  Isabelle wants Dorrie to drive her there.

Why does Isabelle ask Dorrie?  What kind of connection can an elderly white woman and a young black female have?  It’s simple, really.  Dorrie is Isabelle’s hairdresser.

If you are a woman, then you immediately understand the intimate relationship between a woman and her beautician.  There is a connection between the two women that belies age and race.  Isabelle and Dorrie have bonded over hair and have become friends.  But there are things both women have chosen not to tell the other.

Dorrie agrees to drive Isabelle to the funeral, although Isabelle refuses to say who died or how she is connected to the deceased.  For Dorrie, it’s a bit of a mystery.  But she does not pry.  She knows instinctively that Isabelle will reveal everything when she is good and ready.

When the two women set off, Kibler begins her second story arc.  Isabelle confides to Dorrie that she fell in love with Robert Prewitt when she was a teenager (Isabelle is only loosely based on Kibler’s own grandmother).  Robert wanted to be a doctor; he was the son of her family’s housekeeper and was African American.

Because this is 1939 Kentucky, the reader knows this is a doomed romance.  Especially in a “sundown” town like Shalerville where blacks were not allowed after dark.  Such places really existed.  It was quite alright for African-American maids, chauffeurs, and workers to be in Shalerville during the day, but, come sundown, they had to vacate the area or face the consequences.

Kibler’s decision to set part of the story in this sundown town has a sobering effect on the reader, or at least it did on me.  I worried for Robert and for Isabelle, but especially for Robert’s safety in such a dark, chilling and painful place.

As Isabelle narrates her part of the story, Kibler illustrates the sheer ugliness of the world in which Isabelle lives.  It’s full of small minds and discrimination so common at the time.  Robert and Isabelle know how difficult life will be for them but they are in love and determined.  They run away together, but the course of true love never does go smoothly, does it?  And Robert and Isabelle are no exception.

As Isabelle conveys her story to Dorrie, the young black mother begins confiding to Isabelle.  Dorrie likes Teague, a handsome, successful black man, but he just seems too perfect—something she is not.  After her divorce, Dorrie is hesitant about bringing a new man into her life and into the lives of her children: a sweet young daughter and a son who is a senior in high school.  Her son and his future constantly worry Dorrie, who is uncertain if she needs the added concern of a new relationship.  Listening to Isabelle’s story, though, Dorrie learns something profound about life and about love.

A bond that first formed over hair expands further.  For Isabelle and Dorrie, age and color matter not; they are insignificant things.

Calling Me Home is a courageous tale because Kibler holds nothing back.  Just a few weeks into President Barack Obama’s second term in office, you hear so often how we live in a “post-racial” society.  But is that actually true?  When Dorrie and Isabelle stop to eat at a restaurant on their trip, a white man and woman look curiously at them.  The man soon turns rude and openly stares at them.  In a stage whisper, he wonders why a white lady is with a black woman.

If the romance between Isabelle and Robert highlights race in the American past, then this scene is an eye-opening look at race in the American present.  Kibler shows us how far we’ve come in this country; however, she also shows us how far we still have to go.

Calling Me Home is both a solemn and stirringly emotional novel that takes us deep into a woman’s heart and backward into one country’s harsh past.  Kibler’s story of love, loss, family, faith, and friendship hearken to the stuff of life.  In the end, Calling Me Home is a surprising novel.  Because Kibler is always patient and easy on the foreshadowing, the conclusion is an ending that will surely amaze readers, just as it did me.

We should never dwell on our differences and focus instead on the ways we are the same.  That’s what I learned from Calling Me Home.  Kibler will break your heart in this tale, but she will also put it back together again.

julie kibler

Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home is the She Reads February Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book and enter to win one of ten copies and read the fabulous reviews of members.  The book comes out February 12.  Check back here on my blog February 12 for my interview with Kibler.  It’s going to be amazing!

 

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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).

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            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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