Can we not read another book about white people?
That’s what someone said in book club a few weeks back. And it’s stayed with me ever since. We’ve read about 16 books since the inception of our book club and I can only think of one that wasn’t about white people. One and a half if we count Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which was mostly about white people dealing with racism but the cast of characters wasn’t 100% white.
And then I took it a step further and looked at my own reading choices over the past year. Three books that I’ve read in the past year (and at this point, I’ve read 78) were not about white people.
Three and a half if I count Major Pettigrew.
I always thought that I read a wide variety of stories about all kinds of people. But my reading records say otherwise.
Clearly I need to make more of an effort to choose diversity in my reading. Because if I’m not expanding my worldview with reading, what’s the point?
To that end, I just finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, bringing my total of non-white reads to a staggering four and a half.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the story of Hattie Shepherd, told through the stories of her nine surviving children. One could argue that it’s the story of the Shepherd family as each chapter is the story of one or more of her children, but I think it’s more about Hattie. Each child’s story somehow comes back to Hattie – how she acted, if she beat them, if she ignored them etc. Each child is wounded or damaged in some way by Hattie and instead of a story of a family, you get a story about an individual or many individuals, sharing a common bond: Hattie.
That was the one thing that really stood out for me about this book: individuality. Yes, collectively this book tells the story about a family. But each chapter is really the story about one person, with references back to their mother. None of the stories intersect with each other, as is often the case with this style of book (see The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman for my favourite in this style).
The book spans a time period from 1923 all the way to 1980. The Shepherds live in Philadelphia but their roots are in Georgia and they struggle with the Jim Crow laws, racism south of the Mason-Dixon Line, poverty, revival preaching, and the Vietnam War. In one instance Hattie’s sister and brother-in-law are having a picnic on the side of the road when they get harassed by a group of white men who tell them to get lost. Such is the talent of Mathis’ writing that I could practically taste the fear and the shame.
I was swept up in this book until the last two chapters which is when Mathis lost me. While none of the chapters made me love any of the characters, they made me want to know more about how they got that way. The last two chapters felt forced to me, like the book wanted wrapping up too quickly.
Once again I’m glad for the ladies of my book club. If this hadn’t been brought up, I never would have realized that I’m not reading diversely enough. Now I’m aware and I hope that I will be able to be more conscientious about it. Don’t want to get all David Gilmour about it.