Mathis takes us from 1925, when Hattie first arrives in Philadelphia from Georgia and announces, “Mama. . . I’ll never go back. Never,” to 1980 when she prevents her granddaughter, Sala, from agreeing to accept Jesus Christ as her savior. Hattie has, she decides, lost enough of her children – to God, to the asylum where Sala’s mother, Cassie, has been presumably been taken, to feigned wealth, to attempted suicide – that she’s not going to lose another. Instead, she tries to comfort Sala, though she is “unaccustomed. . . to tenderness.” As Mathis writes —
Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman – perhaps she wasn’t, but there hadn’t been time for sentiment when they were young. She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.
Hattie is the most richly drawn character in this family, but everyone in this book who gets a story is evoked successfully if only in a few surgical strokes. We are with the trumpet player and the pastor, the wife who compromised and even the twins. We are rooting for all of them to survive, to make some kind of way in the world.
Mathis’ hand is all but invisible here. It seems so effortless, this history of a 20th century family trying to adjust to its matriarch’s northern migration. Mathis moves into each character, each moment in time with a grace that belies the fact that this is her first novel.
Here’s hoping that there are many more to come.