The Audacious Book Club: The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis’s debut novel, gains its narrative momentum with the arrival of children: for Hattie Shepherd, first come the twins, Jubilee and Philadelphia, who then die of pneumonia when they are just a few months old. Their deaths are followed by the births of nine more children, each of whom are afforded a chapter, and for each of whom Hattie desperately tries to provide while her husband, August, strays farther and farther from home. As so often happens, the children grow to resent the parent who is there rather than the parent who is not. And though Hattie—buried under her grief, struggling to feed her surviving children, lonely, tired, and imperfect in the way so many humans are who survive under the weight of poverty—is often doing her best, the children’s resentment makes sense. They needed Hattie’s love and tenderness, but in her fight to keep them clothed and fed, she often didn’t have that to give. Like the title of the book suggests in its linkage to the Biblical tribes of Israel, the characters in this novel are often lost and often wandering; although the Great Migration is not at the center of the novel, the novel is written in its shadow. It is what pushes Hattie’s family north and puts her in the path of August Shepherd.
The Unsettled, Mathis’s second novel, is rooted even more deeply in Black history and in a sense of familial dislocation. Mathis tells the stories of Ava, who is trying to raise her young son Toussaint in Philadelphia in the 1980s; Duchess, and her mother, who still lives in their Alabama hometown, Bonaparte. This novel too begins with the arrival of a child: Toussaint, two days hungry. He has escaped from foster care and returned to the home that he used to share with Ava, who is now in prison. He holes up in the house for the night and decides he’s going to reverse the path of the Great Migration: he will return to Alabama to find his grandmother Duchess. What follows is a story told from alternating points of view while deftly engaging with established historical patterns. Mathis engages with Black history from the painful, ongoing legacy of white supremacy to the power of Black community, from white settler colonialism to the nod to the Haitian Revolution in Toussaint’s name, and from the parallel Mathis draws between the fictional Ark collective and West Philadelphia’s real MOVE collective. Ava, Duchess, and Toussaint are unforgettable characters with real depth. At times, they make infuriating choices but they are rendered so beautifully that you can’t help but to withhold judgment and hope they find the best way forward.
The Unsettled is a powerful, moving novel about the fracture of Black family and the attempts we make to suture it, about the power of our history and futile attempts to sanitize it, about the connection of Black people to the lands they fight so hard to keep, and the government’s attempts to separate them from it. I’m really looking forward to discussing this multi-layered novel with you over the next few weeks.