Shepherd, the title character of Ayana Mathis' piercing debut novel, is at once a tragic heroine with mythic dimensions and an entirely recognisable mother and wife trying to make ends meet. Her story, set in 20th-century Philadelphia, is one of terrible loss and grief and survival, a story of endurance in the face of disappointment, heartbreak and harrowing adversity.
When she was 15, Hattie took a train from Georgia with her mother and sisters to Philadelphia, a city that represented freedom impossible in the Jim Crow South. In the North, in this "New Jerusalem," the American dream seemed within reach. In less than two years Hattie has married, and she and her husband, August, have beautiful twins, whom she names Philadelphia and Jubilee – "reaching forward names, not looking back ones." They rent a nice "in-the-meanwhile" house in a nice neighbourhood where the ladies "did their baking early, and by noon the block smelled of the strawberry cakes they set on their windowsills to cool."
Then, suddenly, in the winter of 1925, the twins come down with pneumonia, and for lack of proper medication – and the failure of the furnace – they die "in the order in which they were born: first Philadelphia, then Jubilee." Hattie and August eventually have four more sons and five daughters, but they never recover from the deaths of their firstborns. While August begins spending his evenings drinking and seeing other women, Hattie grows increasingly angry and bitter – furious at her wayward husband and overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for her expanding family.
A layer of protective ice grows over Hattie's heart, and she will dispense little tenderness to her children: partly out of exhaustion, partly out of a fear of caring too much. She will be there for them when they fall sick, and she will work day and night to try to put food on the table, while the feckless August fritters away their savings. But Hattie's ferocity and coldness make her children fear her and long for some sign of her love. That emotional impoverishment reverberates throughout their lives, causing more confusion and heartache.
Mathis, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, writes with uncommon narrative authority in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, conjuring the lives of the Shepherd family with extraordinary psychological precision. The novel, which has just been chosen by Oprah Winfrey for Oprah's Book Club 2.0, has overlapping chapters – each devoted to one or more characters' stories – that give us flash-lighted snapshots of Hattie and August and their offspring over 5 1/2 decades, tracing how resentments and dreams are passed down generation to generation, how daughters and sons unconsciously retrace patterns from their parents' lives. Franklin, who joins the Navy, marries a girl he adores, but – much like his father – will end up cheating shamelessly on her. Alice, who marries a wealthy doctor, lacks her mother's determination to endure, but she too finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage. Mathis has a gift for imbuing her characters' stories with an epic dimension that recalls Toni Morrison's writing, and her sense of time and place and family will remind some of Louise Erdrich, ...but her elastic voice is thoroughly her own – both lyrical and unsparing, meditative and visceral, and capable of giving the reader nearly complete access to her characters' minds and hearts.
"Hattie knew," Mathis writes, "her children did not think her a kind woman – perhaps she wasn't, but there hadn't been time for sentiment when they were young. She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn't been anything to put in their bellies? They didn't understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind."
Over the years Hattie suffers one terrible loss after another. Her son Six – who was severely burned in an accident involving scalding bath water – is subject to dangerous fits that can lead to violence or a sense of communion with God. Her daughter Cassie also has something "wrong in the head": She hears voices that tell her to dig up her parents' garden and throw herself out of a moving car, and she comes to believe that her parents are trying to poison her. As for Bell – who has been living in the ghetto with her petty thief boyfriend, Walter – she develops TB and nearly dies, after refusing food and medicine for weeks.
Such events sound melodramatic in summary. And Mathis sometimes doubles down on the drama, for instance having Bell deliberately have an affair with the one man, Lawrence, whom her mother really loved. The reader might also question Mathis' decision to make so many of the men in this novel – including August, Lawrence and Franklin – into such similar variations on a familiar type: likable but weak and self-indulgent cads who can't hold onto real jobs and who can't keep themselves from lying to the women they love, cheating on them or gambling away money that should be going to pay the utilities and rent.
Mathis has a remarkable ability, however, to inject the most agonising events with a racking sense of verisimilitude. The chapter in which Hattie desperately tries to keep her ailing twins alive and the one in which she makes the agonising decision to let her well-to-do sister in Georgia adopt her last child, Ella, in order to give the baby a better life, have an excruciating intimacy that makes us feel we are reliving events in our own families' lives. Toward the end of this astonishingly powerful novel Hattie attends a church service in which the pastor delivers a sermon on the Book of Job. At this point the reader may well wonder at the cruelty of Hattie's fate and feel that Mathis has subjected her to a Job-like series of afflictions: the loss of so many of her children to illness or madness or betrayal, on top of her disappointments in love and a burdensome marriage.
But just when it seems as though the author as God had stacked the deck against Hattie, Mathis gives us a haunting – and, yes, hopeful – glimpse of the possibility of redemption and the resilience of the human spirit.
Source:Michiko Kakutani/ New York Times News Service