Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield

Having recently been selected for Oprah's Book Club, this debut novel has catapulted its author into the limelight. It has garnered enormous interest as much for the book as for the story surrounding its inception.

Ayana Mathis is a graduate from the MFA Creative Writing course at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. Her tutor for the first semester was Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Orange Prize for Home. She advised Mathis that her “characters were not sufficiently complex to the situation”. The result is a novel that is based around twelve different characters, all throwing light on the life and character of the main protagonist, Hattie Shepherd.

Set in 20th century America, it is the story of loss, grief and redemption. Hattie Shepherd is a mother trying to do her best in difficult circumstances. Hattie’s story, set against the historical backdrop of the Great Migration, is told over five and a half decades.

In 1923, aged 15, Hattie, her mother and sisters flee Georgia for a more promising life in Philadelphia. Two years later Hattie is married to August and tending to her seven month old twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, whose names she picked because they were “reaching forward names ... “. Unable to provide her twins with the warmth and medication necessary they both pass away, in the order they were born, from a crippling bout of pneumonia.

Hattie has nine more children. Each one of the tribes refers to her children, nine living, two dead and one grandchild. Through each one of these lives we discover more about Hattie, her sacrifices, her disappointments and ultimately her strength of character.

Disappointed by a husband who promised their rented home would only be short term, Hattie concentrates on the tasks she must do every day to keep the children fed and clothed. Her husband’s drinking and womanising has left Hattie to save what she can, rotating shoes as children grow out of them and worst of all giving away her daughter to her childless sister for a better life.

Her children perceive her as loveless, so consumed with feeding and providing essentials, there was nothing left for her to give. The only man she ever loved ended up in a relationship with one of her daughters.

Each child has brought on themselves a terrible fraught life, the women seemingly at the mercy of gambling, womanising men.  As Hattie ages some of her bitterness, her coldness towards her children, has been chipped away. Despite trying to keep them at arm’s length to protect herself, she is still heartbroken by their predicament.

August, now frail and no longer able to lose himself with women, has chosen God instead. Hattie surprises herself by finding some solace in the church, but it is a measured careful attachment, not an indulgent one.

Although this seems on the surface to be a bleak book, Hattie’s resilience in the face of such desperation is hopeful.The structure of the book allows Hattie’s story to unfold seamlessly. The reader gets a brief glimpse of each child, but ends up with a whole and complete picture of Hattie Shepherd. The book revolves solely around her.

Mathis has written a deeply affecting novel. Her command of language is extraordinary and her character development at the heart and soul of this novel.

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