Hattie Shepherd and her newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, are dozing in the shade on the porch. The scene is an idyllic one. “The neighborhood rang with birdsong. The twittering lulled the twins to sleep and put Hattie in such high spirits that she giggled all the time.” The proud young mother was deeply in love with her first-born children and had given them “names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”
Unfortunately, Hattie’s optimism is short-lived.
During a brutally cold Philadelphia winter, money is scarce and the furnace breaks down. Hattie struggles to keep her twins healthy, but they die of pneumonia. Hattie never recovers from this tragedy. She goes on to have nine more children, but fails to establish a strong, maternal bond with any of them.
In the remaining self-contained chapters that cover the years 1948 to 1980, author Ayana Mathis reveals the extent of Hattie’s grief through the eyes of her other children and a grandchild. Thrown in the middle of their lives, we watch as they wrestle with their inner demons.
We meet Floyd, a talented musician, who struggles with sexual confusion and shame.
Hattie’s son Six alternates between bouts of violence and Bible preaching.
We can feel Bell’s ambivalence toward her mother as she lies dying of tuberculosis in a run-down apartment. She actually fantasizes about her mother’s soup: “Hattie had kept them all alive with sheer will and collard greens and some southern remedies. Mean as the dickens, though.”
While Alice appears to be the most successful and upwardly mobile sibling, she cannot release memories of the childhood abuse that she and her brother Billups endured.
Bits and pieces of Hattie’s life emerge as each child’s life unfolds. We can feel her frustration and anguish as she wrestles with her husband’s womanizing and the circumstances surrounding the births of Ruthie and Ella.
At times, it was hard to keep track of all the characters. Personally, I would have preferred more depth and the use of, at most, four different voices. I found Hattie, Bell, Floyd and Six to be the most compelling of the characters. If Ayana Mathis decides to continue this saga, I hope she considers writing Bell’s story.
Note: Oprah will have an exclusive television interview with Ayana Mathis on Super Soul Sunday–February 3rd at 11:00 a.m.