Archive for the ‘generations’ Tag

Family Knots   Leave a comment


Families can be so complicated and Anne Tyler has banked on this fact in all of her novels. Her most recent, A Spool of Blue Thread, is no exception.

Abby and Red Whitshank are the kind of folks that raise their four kids, go to work every day, are regarded favorably, pay their bills, have a peripheral connection to a church and know little about either each other or their family history. At one point, in a jesting tone, the omniscient narrator notes there are two family stories: one about the family home on Bouton Road in a respectable, comfortable Baltimore neighborhood, and the other about Red’s sister’s marriage.

Of course, there are more, many more. And Tyler slowly, almost teasingly, reveals them. There’s a good reason why she spends so much time describing the Bouton Road house built by Red’s father.

Initially, the novel appears to focus on Denny, the ne’er-do-well son who floats in and out of the family’s vision. Once he’s clearly established as unreliable and secretive, the focus shifts. Multiple times. Denny has two sisters, but they are the least developed characters. Stem, the youngest son, soon becomes a focal point, as do Red’s parents. Though separated by a generation, the secrets and pasts associated with these three are what move the narrative.

Tyler is not afraid to throw in surprises, which in retrospect were actually subtly foreshadowed. Her ability to show the strengths and foibles of family life are engaging, occasionally humorous and always insightful.

A Spool of Blue Thread
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
368 pages


Family Affairs   Leave a comment


I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. Mathis has created a family, beginning in 1925 continuing through 1980, of which Hattie is the matriarch. The tribes, her 11 children and one grandchild, are revealed in single, captured episodes (chapters) reflecting a lifetime of longing and emotional neglect. On one hand Hattie is a mother who loves her children too much; yet, she doesn’t love them well.

Parents are not always infallible, and Hattie makes no apologies for her shortcomings. The first chapter, about her twins, and later that of her daughter, Rosie, are told through Hattie’s eyes; the rest of the stories are shared from her children’s perspectives. These include looks back on their childhoods and a glimpse of them as adults. No one fares well, and the question surfaces: how much is a parent’s responsibility? Except that’s not the only issue here.

Hattie and her husband, August, share the burden of poverty and heartache. Their relationship, however, is grounded more in the physical than sentimental realm. Consequently, her nine offspring struggle with everything from sexuality to religion, from addiction to mental illness. How would life had been different if Hattie’s first two children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, not died in infancy? It’s possible they would have grown up to be just as miserable as their siblings.

Mathis’s writing is the redeeming element: evocative and haunting. What she writes may be difficult to read, but how she does it is memorable.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Probably Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
243 pages