This was an interesting, easy-to-read novel, but not, in my opinion, worthy of being a best-seller. I chose to read it for two reasons: sometimes Oprah is right about books, and the title. My grandmother was named Hattie, and my favorite niece is named after her. How could I resist? (A side note: Hattie in the book has a sister named Pearl; my grandmother Hattie had a daughter named Pearl.) In this case, I think Oprah was mistaken. Don’t get me wrong: this was definitely better than Madame Bovary, but Oprah has chosen better books in the past. (Am I the only one who wonders if Oprah actually reads all the books she chooses? She has an empire to run; how does she find time to read? Or enjoy all that money? I have to wonder if she ever just curls up with a book, a cup of tea, and those dogs.)
Hattie is a young black woman, only seventeen when the book begins, with a husband and twin babies. After leaving Georgia with her mother and sisters two years before and settling in Philadelphia, she marries and in quick succession loses her mother to death and one sister to the South. She is alone in a cold and lonely town, poor and scared.
The tribes of the title are Hattie’s children, each chapter named for one or more, their struggles and experiences. From the twins of the first chapter, Philadelphia and Jubilee, suffering through pneumonia in the harsh winter, whose deaths change their mother forever. Her pain and anger after this event affects all of her relationships. She loves the rest of her children, but is unable to show them. Her children call her The General, and resent her hard work to keep them all alive. The children grow up to be everything their mother does not want them to be: Floyd, while a successful musician, struggles with his sexuality. Alice and Billups hide an event that tortures both of them. Bell throws herself into a life of debauchery to hurt her mother, nearly killing herself in the process. Franklin gambles and drinks away his family. Six is lost to the life of faith he does not really believe in; Cassie’s mental illness is wrapped up in religion and paranoia. Ruthie is Hattie’s love child, almost sets Hattie free. Ella, the child of Hattie’s middle years, is loved, and sent away to live with sister Pearl, in hopes that she will have a better life. Sala, the grandchild, Cassie’s daughter, is the child Hattie tries to save. She has lost Cassie to her craziness, lost the twins to death; Six to religion and his own desires. While she rescued Bell from her illness, we never find out if their relationship becomes better, or even what happens once Bell leaves the hospital. And this is my problem with this book-no follow through. I want to know what happens to these people! The book skims over the issues of the times, from Prohibition, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, sexuality, alcoholism and disease, as well as mental illness and religion, but never really addresses any of them. The ending is unsatisfactory and abrupt, without any kind of resolution. I enjoyed the stories, as far as they went, but I long for more. Perhaps Six Tribes would have been a better ides, with a bit more focus on each tribe?