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THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE

An excellent debut that finds layers of pathos within a troubled clan.

The legacy of the Great Migration from the 1920s to the 1980s infuses this cutting, emotional collection of linked stories.

The central figure of Mathis’ debut is Hattie, who arrived in Philadelphia in the 1920s as a teenager, awed by the everyday freedoms afforded blacks outside of her native Georgia. But the opening story, “Philadelphia and Jubilee,” is pure heartbreak, as pride and poverty keep her from saving her infant twin children from pneumonia. Though Mathis has inherited some of Alice Walker’s sentimentality and Toni Morrison’s poetic intonation, her own prose is appealingly earthbound and plainspoken, and the book’s structure is ingenious: It moves across the bulk of the 20th century, with each chapter spotlighting one of Hattie’s nine surviving children. (The title’s “twelve tribes” are those nine children, plus the infant twins and a granddaughter who’s central to the closing story.) Each child's personal struggle is a function of the casual bigotry and economic challenges in the wake of Jim Crow. Floyd is a jazz trumpeter and serial philanderer who awakens to his homosexuality; Six is a tent-revival preacher who comes at his profession cynically, as a way to escape his family; Alice is the well-off wife of a doctor with a co-dependent relationship with her brother, Billups; and so on. The longest and most disarming story features Bell, who in 1975 starts a relationship with one of Hattie’s former boyfriends, highlighting the themes of illness and oppressiveness of family. Mathis will occasionally oversimplify dialogue to build drama, but she’s remarkably deft at many more things for a first-timer: She gracefully shifts her narratives back and forth in time; has an eye for simple but resonant details; and possesses a generous empathy for Hattie, who is unlikable on the surface but carries plenty of complexity.

An excellent debut that finds layers of pathos within a troubled clan.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-35028-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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