I read this book quickly and on one level I really loved it. The writing is brilliant, and it’s my favourite kind of historical fiction in that it’s deeply evocative, vivid, and pulls me right into a place and time through the experiences of people who lived there. “There” in this case is Philadelphia from the 1920s up through the 1980s, and the people involved are an African-American couple, Hattie and August, who migrate up from Georgia to take advantage of a freer society and greater opportunities in the North. Balanced against the lack of Jim Crow laws and overt racism is the longing for home that permeates the novel and the sense of being perpetual outsiders in a northern city.
Philadelphia does not realize its promise for Hattie and August; their marriage is unhappy and they find themselves locked in a life of poverty that they not only can’t escape but seem doomed to pass on to their children, almost all of whom lead troubled lives as adults. The subsequent chapters of the novel follow the stories of various children (and one grandchild) in the family, and nobody has it easy. These aren’t easy lives and this isn’t an easy read, but that’s not what gave me reservations about the book.
My problem — if you can call it a problem, given that I devoured the book in a single day — with The Twelve Tribes is that it’s billed as a novel and it clearly is not a novel. It’s a collection of connected short stories, which is a great and perfectly legitimate thing to write, but it’s misleading if what you want is a story you can follow from beginning to end. The most frustrating aspect of this structure is that every story has a different main character, and each character makes only passing reference, if any, to what has happened to his or her brothers and sisters since the last story we read. This means the reader is left with a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions. Does Floyd ever come to terms with his sexuality? Does Franklin get out of Vietnam alive? Does Bell recover or die? Don’t read on for the answers to those questions, because you won’t be getting them, and that might drive you crazy if, like me, you get invested in a particular character’s story and want to know how it ends.
Do read on if what fascinates you is the beautiful writing, powerful vignettes of what it was like to be an African-American migrant family in mid-20th-century US, or, most importantly, if the character of Hattie is what fascinates you from the beginning. She is the consistent thread that runs through all these stories, though she is more present in some than in others. In the end, it’s the story of Hattie much more than it is the story of her “tribe” of children, and she is both far more and far less than the stereotypical strong black matriarch we often see in American fiction. Hattie is both intensely loving and cruel, generous and mean, wise and foolish. She is a real human being and she comes off the page vividly as we see her story unfold from the time when she’s a girl of 17 to an aging woman. I only wished for as detailed a portrait of some of the other characters, who pass by us as quickly as intriguing strangers glimpsed from the window of a passing bus.