Archive for the ‘mothers and sons’ Tag

Mother and Son   Leave a comment

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Shuggie Bain, the title character of Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, is heartbreaking. But, don’t avoid it. The characters, notably Shuggie and his mother Agnes, are vividly portrayed with hopes and flaws.

The story is bookended by 1992 when Shuggie is a young man. By contrast, most of the narrative occurs in the 1980s.  The seamy parts of Glasgow are brought to life, complete with Scottish dialect, out-of-work miners, alcoholics and low-rent housing. The setting is as much a character as Shuggie and others.

Agnes is an alcoholic whose efforts at sobriety are rare. She left her first husband for Shuggie’s father, who in turn, leaves her. Her two older children find ways to escape the toxic home life, so Shuggie remains to care for his mother while dealing with her neglect. He’s optimistic she’ll change and be a proper parent. He also believes if this happens, he’ll become a normal boy.

Shuggie is effeminate, so he’s bullied, but never understands the insults nor reasons he’s taunted. In this regard, Douglas has crafted a beautiful character whose innocence is his downfall. When coupled with his devotion to Agnes as her caregiver, he’s not left with much of a childhood.

Because of her beauty, Agnes believes she deserves more in life but does nothing to attain it. Although it’s evident to everyone around her, she refuses to acknowledge her alcoholism. She’s also certain the right man will come along to save her. In fact, he’s been at her side all his life.

Shuggie Bain

Four Bookmarks

Grove Press, 2020

430 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