This week I’m reading The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. I’d requested it some time ago from my library but really became interested in reading it when The Rumpus posted a comic review of the book. So when I received an email notifying me the book was ready to be picked up, I was keen to read it and expected that it was not only good enough to be Oprah-approved, but also Rumpus-approved.
And I’m reading it and I’m loving it. It’s true, we get a strong sense of Hattie through the tiny vignettes her children remember. And the writing is beautiful and simple. The characters sometimes insert tiny, fanatical yet true ideas into their stories, like little Oskar Schell does in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. For example at one point Hattie’s lover thinks, “Maybe we have a finite amount of love to give. We’re born with our portion and if we love and are not loved in return, it’s depleted.” He then thinks that he hasn’t yet loved enough, he has so much love to give Hattie, but wonders if, after giving life to all her children, she hasn’t yet depleted all the love she’s had to give. These are the thoughts that float into our minds when we stare at nothings on trains, when we go for runs with nothing on our minds, and Mathis captures them in her writing.
Another passage I thought was beautiful: “She put all the blame on August. She never for one minute stopped thinking he was the cause of every bad thing that ever was, and he never stopped hoping that one morning he would wake up and prove her wrong. If she would stop hating him for one day, one hour, he’d have the strength to do the right thing by her. This was the life they had. Nobody could ever know it like they did. They owed it to each other to stay together. That was their bond.”
What a beautiful description of a broken relationship, and how simply it’s written. To encompass the sort of problems so many couples face in their relationships, the contradictions and bonds they inhabit, in this one short paragraph is a marvel. I’ve fallen in love with Ayana Mathis.
Each character possesses an almost extrasensory perception of Hattie. They respect her and, though she may have been cold to them, appreciate and treasure every small sign she gives of her love for them. To me, the book represents more what it’s like to be a mother, the sun of a tiny familial universe, than who Hattie is.
The book also dives into a battle of desire vs. complacency. According to August, he and Hattie only ended up together because he needed a purpose in life and they’d made a baby. Floyd, who desires to be with men but fears societal repercussions, denies even himself the awareness of his sexuality. Six wants so badly to be loved and wanted by society that he lets the men convert him into a preacher at 16 years old. Mathis, chapter by chapter, drops the characters’ desires in our minds and then cuts us off, leaves us hanging at the point in the story where we may find out whether their desires will be fulfilled or not. In this way she leaves each character’s story squirming freshly in our brains, craving grooves that will not disappear from our minds for a long time.