Tag Archives: dysfunctional family

A Hard Life: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

cover imageAt the opening of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Hattie is a new mother in Philadelphia in 1925 – full of hope for her future life with her husband August and the future of their twin babies – before she experiences another tragic loss. Already grieving the recent death of her mother, who had brought Hattie and her sisters to Philadelphia to escape the South’s racist Jim Crow laws after their father was murdered with impunity by white men, Hattie withstands this new blow, essentially alone because her sisters have gone back to Georgia. Steeped in sorrow, Hattie stays in the North and raises her children – eleven in all. It’s a very hard life.

The second chapter jumps forward to 1948, which might bother readers who were expecting to settle into a sad (but ultimately uplifting) ongoing saga about a multi-generational family with a tough but loving mother. (That’s why I’m giving you this heads-up!) The novel is divided into ten separate stories – linked by their connection with Hattie – each story or vignette centering on one or a pair of Hattie’s adult children. The last one is about Hattie’s granddaughter Sala in 1980. Through the thoughts and memories of Hattie’s children, readers learn more about the central figure of Hattie throughout the novel, but each chapter is a full story on its own, encapsulating the siblings’ own scarred and difficult lives, coming out of an impoverished environment.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is frequently described in reader reviews as bleak, which may scare some off. The Oprah Book Club selection of the book may scare other readers off. Other readers don’t care for linked stories masquerading as a novel. None of those objections matter. You really must read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not put it off, like I did.

When I heard the author Ayana Mathis (Twelve Tribes of Hattie is her first novel.) speak in a panel discussion at last October’s Boston Book Festival along with novelists Kim McLarin and Paul Harding, I immediately added her book to my list of books to read. (The panel was Fiction: Out of Darkness. You can hear the archived audio of it and other events from that day here.) Asked about Hattie, her central character, suffering so much throughout her life, Ayana Mathis said she doesn’t think of the novel as sad or despairing, or Hattie as a hard mother, adding, “Although she loves her children, she raises them to be tough as tough.” She also said that although the novel is often cast as a story of the Great Migration (of African-Americans from southern states to cities in the northern part of the U.S.), she believes it speaks to universal human experience.

If you liked and admired Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (another book that is often described as “bleak”) because of the characters (not the Maine or the small-town setting), you will want to read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Mathis, Ayana
Knopf, 2012
256 pp.

Disclosure: I read this book as an Oprah 2.0 Book Club digital edition – downloaded through my public library’s Overdrive e-book lending service. The 2.0 edition came with significant passages disconcertingly already highlighted in yellow, but I got used to it!

Other Opinions (all excellent)
Big Book Lover
It’s a Book Thing
Love at First Book

Saving Your Family: The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls @SimonAudio (Audio)

cover image of The Silver Star audiobookThe Silver Star by Jeannette Walls is the author’s third book and sort-of second novel. Her first book, The Glass Castle, was a masterful memoir of family dysfunction; her second, Half Broke Horses, was subtitled “A True-Life Novel” because it is her maternal grandmother’s life story in the form of a novel, based mostly on her mother’s memories. (I haven’t read it.)

According to a New York Times article, after The Glass Castle was published in 2005, whenever the author was questioned about the veracity of the startling memoir of her dysfunctional parents, she would say it was all true and protest that she couldn’t write fiction. “I’ve got to do some serious backpedaling now,” she says in the New York Times interview promoting her new work of fiction, The Silver Star, “I’ve got no more wacky relatives left to exploit!”

The audiobook of The Silver Star is narrated by the author, who has a slightly Southern accent, maybe, and describes the experience in this brief promotional video as “a hoot”. She identifies with Bean, the 12-year-old narrator of the story, who she says is a “linear thinker” – unlike her imaginative 15-year-old sister Liz and their wacky, careless mother, Charlotte – “she doesn’t make things up.” The author is an experienced media personality and she narrates the book very well, in a straightforward way, with sincerity, as if she actually remembers some of the events. And many times over the course of listening I thought how similar some of it was to The Glass Castle. Charlotte – living her dream and “finding the magic”, trying to make it big as a singer/songwriter – is temperamentally a lot like the author’s mother was described to be in The Glass Castle. There is no feckless, drunken father in The Silver Star, but when the girls are abandoned too long by their mother (whose absences they loyally try to hide from authorities for as long as they can), they run to their loving but ineffectual Uncle Tinsley living in the old family home in Virginia.

The author acknowledges the similarities in her books in that same promotional video about narrating The Silver Star:

I think fans of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses will recognize…a lot. I think people write about what they know about and The Silver Star does draw on a number of childhood experiences. Sometimes they’re experiences that I didn’t cover for some reason or another and they continue to haunt me so I wanted to revisit them.” In addition to a number of events, a number of the themes from The Glass Castle also reemerge in The Silver Star, such as children taking on adult roles, taking on responsibilities that their parents maybe should have taken on.”

Writing a novel rather than a memoir, the author has more freedom to embellish, change events around, and add an entire plot line to build the story on. But knowing the author’s background from The Glass Castle, I felt like I was constantly filling in blanks when imagining the characters of Bean, Liz, and Charlotte. It’s hard for me to decide how successfully the author has made the transition to novelist because of that. I don’t know how well this novel would have done if it had been published first, as a work of fiction. I enjoyed listening to it and highly recommend the audiobook edition. I think the author’s narration helped a lot to sell me on the story and the characters as seen through the eyes of Bean.

The Silver Star will be a good choice for many book clubs because of its themes of family dysfunction, coming of age, and socioeconomic inequality. Also because (despite the disappointing failings of many of the main characters) there is a clear villain of the story (Jerry Maddox, evil mill foreman and enemy of Uncle Tinsley) and a true heroine (Bean herself.)

The Silver Star
Walls, Jeannette
Simon & Schuster Audio
June 2013
8 hrs on 7 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher for review.

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.


Love on the Fringe: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

cover image of Eleanor & Park1. Love–Fiction. 2. Dating (Social Customs)–Fiction. 3. High Schools–Fiction. 4. Schools–Fiction.  These library catalog subject headings usually signal a YA love story, often one that teachers and high school librarians will love, and so it is with Eleanor & Park, the second novel by Rainbow Rowell.

Eleanor & Park is a love story set in high school in 1986, a little before the time the author herself graduated from high school, I’d guess. If you were in high school in the 80s, the many music references in the book may resonate more with you than they did with me.

Park is a boy whose half-Korean attractiveness and martial arts talent keep him close enough on the fringes of popularity to remain below the radar of the dominant crowd at school, always on the lookout for outliers and the strange. He lets the new girl on the school bus sit down when no one else will. Right from the first moment he sees her coming down the aisle, Park realizes that Eleanor will be nailed as an outlier. Eleanor is wearing clothes of her own styling; is a bit overweight; towers over Tina (the petite leader of the pack); and has a huge mass of curly hair, in a highly noticeable shade of red. What makes him scoot over for her to let her sit down, he wonders even as he does it. Why endanger his own status when he’s only got one year left of obnoxious high school life to endure?

Eleanor and Park slowly, almost reluctantly connect through a shared love of Watchmen (back when graphic novels were still comic books, and were not cool) and music, the less pop the better. Eleanor has a very troubled home life, including a nasty, abusive stepfather she has already run away from once. Park has a more stable, loving home environment but his father sets unreasonable standards for him – making Park learn to drive a stick shift before he can get his license, for example.

Hugely popular YA author John Green gave Eleanor & Park a glowing review in The New York Times, making Eleanor & Park the new YA/adult crossover phenomenon – the book to read after you’ve read The Fault in Our Stars. Eleanor & Park is a heartbreaking love story that succeeds in making believable the idea that, even in the throes of the most horrendous high school experience, there is the possibility of finding the love of one’s life.

Eleanor & Park
Rowell, Rainbow
St. Martin’s Griffin
February 2013
336 pp
$18.99 US / $21.99 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this book through my public library system.

Other opinions of Eleanor & Park (all excellent):
Devouring Texts
Estella’s Revenge

The Picky Girl
Your Friendly Librarian