In the first decades of the twentieth century, vast numbers of black Americans left the rural South and settled in the cities of the North. A response to the appalling racial violence and political repression that followed the collapse of Reconstruction governments, the Great Migration is one reason that Northern cities look the way they do today, and its social and cultural ramifications are the subject of Ayana Mathis’s beautiful debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Knopf; $24.95), which follows one black family through five and a half painful decades in Philadelphia.
The biblical note of the title is no accident, nor is it an accident that the novel ends in church with the Book of Job; this is a story of Old Testament brutality. Hattie comes to Philadelphia with her mother and sisters after her father is murdered by white men in Georgia, and although she is at first astonished to see that black people aren’t expected to step into the gutters when white people pass, the blessings of the North prove illusory, and soon God starts taking things away. Hattie loses her first two children to pneumonia. Her relationship with her husband is never the same afterward, but their attraction to each other is sufficient to produce many more children, all of them beset by calamity: Franklin is an alcoholic, Six is horribly burned in the bathtub, Cassie is mad, Bell tries to commit suicide by refusing treatment for tuberculosis, Billups is molested as a child, Alice’s wealthy husband gives her tranquilizers and keeps her shut up in the house.
Hattie keeps “them all alive with sheer will and collard greens and some old southern remedies.” But even though she bears a superficial resemblance to that tough black woman with the heart of gold who is so persistent an archetype in American culture, Hattie is surprisingly, unrelentingly mean. Mathis is intent on rendering the brutal truth behind the archetype, and her persistence makes the novel a marvelous work of art. As Hattie reflects at the end, her children “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.”
There is no excess of sentiment here, no sentimentality whatsoever. Hattie, degraded by circumstance, is not a person one longs to meet or emulate. But the paradox of this novel is the paradox of all the best sad stories: the details are hard, but the grace and elegance of Mathis’s writing lift the soul.
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Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow (New York Review Books; Paper $14.95) is astonishingly chaotic. The language twitches and jerks and sickens itself like an addict in withdrawal. But Platonov’s characters, like Mathis’s, begin with utopian dreams; they too discover that the blessings of their new world—the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s—are illusory, and they too are degraded by circumstances beyond their control. When we meet Moscow Chestnova, who is named for her city and whose allegorical importance is plain, she’s in a fever of revolutionary energy—but then she loses her way, loses one of her legs, and subsides into listlessness and poverty.