Oprah’s second pick for her revived book club is “12 Tribes of Hattie” by Ayana Mathis. The book takes place in Philadelphia, starting with the great migration from the North to the South in 1925 through 1980. The story follows Hattie and her children; The Tribe the title speaks of, but more on that later.
Mathis hit the publishing lottery of sorts when her debut effort was chosen by Winfrey. Mathis is a Brooklyn resident by way of Philadelphia. She made her living as a fact checker for magazines before being plucked out of obscurity by Winfrey. In a NY Times piece she stated “I’m permanently stunned right now . . . It’s terrifying and deeply fortunate to get this much attention for a first novel. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation.”
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship, she completed her novel in under two years.
Winfrey openly gushed about the novel, and her writing style was compared to Toni Morrison – high praise for a debut novelist. Being that Toni Morrison is my absolute favorite author, I was stoked about reading this book and happily accepted this assignment.
This is not a review of the book but a brief consideration for the possibility of the novel being turned into a film (a longer review will follow later). I should note that while the book was chosen by Oprah as part of her book club, there has been no announcement that she nor any one else has optioned the book’s film rights.
With the set-up, you would expect an epic novel; but the book reads like a series of short stories, following different characters: Philadelphia & Jubilee, Floyd, Six, Ruthie, Ella, Allice & Billups, Franklin, Bell, Cassie, and Sala.
Each character is one of the title characters’ children, and we meet them at what could be labeled as turning points in their lives.
Hattie’s story is told through the stories of her children. The problem with this format is you never really feel like you get a fully realized story or character; there is always something missing. I would finish a chapter wanting to know more of the character’s story or journey.
At times, in the book, you may get a glimpse of a character at a different age or find out a little something about how their lives turned out, but not enough to satisfy this reader’s curiosity.
The book feels more like an outline than a novel. In fact Mathis could likely write individual books for many of the characters introduced.
Oprah mentioned in her conversation with the author that she woke up wondering about Floyd. I too was taken with this character and kept looking for him and wanting him to pop up in other stories, but he doesn’t.
I wanted to really get caught up in “12 Tribes of Hattie” but could not. More details about the era and place likely would have helped. There is very little in the way of descriptive writing. I kept wondering where the comparisons to Toni Morrison were coming from; there are hints of the folklore and mythology that Morrison is known for, but not nearly enough for the comparisons.
Without a real sense of the story as a whole and the lack of focus on one character I don’t necessarily think that this would make a good feature film. Some of the tales could make for excellent short films though. With all the characters this could possibly make a good period television series, following a black family from the Great Migration on into the 80’s. Of course additional writing for each character, providing a more thorough history, would be needed, because the book isn’t comprehensive in that way.
The series “Downton Abbey” comes to mind as each season of the series takes place over various lengths of time and is interwoven loosely with what is happening historically, providing a glimpse into what it was like for a family of this stature at the time, going through changes as the world moves forward. Characters in the novel are struggling with sexuality, abuse, physical and mental ailments, dealing with bad decisions, being called and so much more, which could provide fertile ground to play for actors, writers, and directors.
The more I think about it, the more I would like to visit these characters weekly to provide the fully realized story the novel did not. Hope someone is reading.
Despite not being able to fall in love with this novel, I would still recommend reading it. There is just something about the characters that are introduced that I think many would find interesting.
If you read the book, what did you think?
You can check out the NY Times piece Here. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/books/buzz-over-ayana-mathiss-twelve-tribes-of-hattie.html?_r=0