While a violently homophobic culture exacerbates Floyd’s self-loathing, that desperate sense of inadequacy is the horrible legacy Hattie has left to all the children she raised with such ferocious single-mindedness. They yearn to be normal, settled, respectable, to grasp the prize that has eluded their mother. Healthy or sick, successful or impoverished, none of them ever feel the balm of her love. Even her glad-handing husband thinks, “If she would stop hating him for one day, one hour, he’d have the strength to do the right thing by her.”
That longing for her approval takes a fascinating turn in the story of Six, Hattie’s runty teenage son. Badly scalded in a childhood accident, he grows up seething with rage but also prone to fits of divine eloquence. In church, grace comes “on him like a seizure and then (leaves) him … frail and hurting,” Mathis writes. “He knew his Jesus spells were another indicator that he was a freak, not merely of body but of spirit. His soul was susceptible to God’s whimsy, just as his body was susceptible to any opportunistic thing that might hurt it.” Sent away to preach in Alabama church revivals when he’s just 15, Six regards his ability to inspire and heal as a curse, a power that makes him feel inadequate and fraudulent. This enthralling chapter, laced with allusions to the Gospels, delves into knotty issues of spirituality and doubt in ways that recall the work of John Updike and Marilynne Robinson.
As these tragic tales play out and the death of her twins fades from immediacy, there’s a risk that Hattie will seem just a harridan, a frigid wife, an angry mother who whispers at one point, “Somebody always wants something from me. They’re eating me alive.” But Mathis returns to her again and again, adding new dimensions to this portrait of a matriarch constantly struggling against poverty and disappointment.
Too many writers of literary fiction tend to stage intimate stories in the hermetically sealed worlds of their own clever imaginations, but Mathis never loses touch with the geography and the changing national culture through which her characters move. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is infused with African-Americans’ conflicted attitudes about the North and the South during the Great Migration. After fleeing Georgia with her widowed mother, young Hattie vows never to leave Philadelphia, where she and her children eventually settle for good, but the past holds a tempting allure for many of these regional refugees.
In the long family arc that Mathis describes, the painful life of one remarkably resilient woman is placed against the hopes and struggles of millions of African-Americans who held this nation to its promise. Without Oprah’s intervention, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie might have been one of the greatest novels of 2013. But now — just in time — it’s certainly one of the best of 2012.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.