God I Hate When Oprah is Right: Book Review for “Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

Originally published March 2013

Damnit Oprah! “Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is a winner.

You know how people have an unnatural loathing of Anne Hathaway? So it is with me and the O. (Don’t read too much into this—like just about anyone my age in Chicago, I made the trek to her studios years ago to see a taping and practically fell over like a fangirl. The only thing that kept me from screaming my fool head off was the topic. Child molesters. I got screwed, too, because the afternoon taping was the lovely Ms. Janet Jackson — Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty. But I digress …)

I’d love to be able to warn you off something Oprah suggests just to be able to say she’s wrong about something (OK, she does have a history that includes a few screw-ups, such as “The Secret” and “A Million Little Whatever” from the Author-Who-Shan’t-Be-Named), but I gotta say—she did good here.

“But will I like it, Litzy?” you ask. I’ll be honest—if sad, depressing tales are not your cup of tea, then back slowly away. There is no happy ending, no ray of sunlight. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t any less beautifully written. From a straight up good literature standpoint, this book deserves high praise.

“Twelve Tribes” is a series of vignettes about Hattie and her children, with each chapter devoted to a different child at a different point in his or her life, beginning with her first, a set of twins just months old. This is definitely a turning point for Hattie—just 17 and now a mother. Life circumstances harden Hattie, whose marriage to August leaves you wondering how her life may have been different if she had listened to her mother.

I did love the plot device, in that each chapter was fresh, and watching Hattie over the years was wildly interesting—particularly in the chapters that focus on baby Ruthie and baby Ella. But be prepared—every single character is damaged. Hattie’s son Floyd facing not just racial discrimination but his own sexual confusion, Six’s “call” to the church that offers an escape from his brutal past, Alice and Billups and how they cope with abuse at the hands of another man, Franklin’s path to Vietnam, Cassie and her psychosis … not a single child escapes unscathed.

The book also offers a portrait of a marriage—Hattie and August—allowing readers a chance to continually circle back to the question, “What if?” It’s a question that can turn on itself while you’re reading. What if I married someone else? What if I had no kids? More kids? Would I accept the trespasses of a husband the way Hattie does? What is it like to go through a life so unforgiving, while being unforgiving? Or is that how you make it though?

Excellent writing all the way through, but one of those books you need to be thoughtful about—this isn’t a chick lit weekend escape.

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