Hattie’s story really begins in Georgia, when she is 15 and fleeing with her mother and sister. Her father’s blacksmith shop has been taken over by white men who have murdered him. They escape to Philadelphia where Hattie sees, for the first time, whites and blacks intermingling. It is there that she meets August and loses her head for one night, foretelling the rest of her life. She gives birth to twins named Philadelphia and Jubilee, names she believes are not part of the past, but part of the future. Both contract pneumonia in the days before penicillin and succumb to the disease.
For the next 56 years, until 1980, we walk through Hattie’s life through the lives of her progeny. Each of them seems to be born under some kind of a cloud or some failure they can’t overcome: racism, emotional and mental disorders, alcoholism, gambling, unfaithfulness are part and parcel of their daily lives. They must be subservient to a cruel class of whites who demand absolute obedience, and when successful, they in turn abuse their own servants. This atmosphere places a heavy burden upon all of them, sometimes too heavy to bear responsibly.
Hard as she tries, Hattie’s children fail to appreciate her efforts and see her as “the general”, lacking in tenderness, doing only what is necessary. Yet it is Hattie who holds this family together through all its trials, guides and comforts them in her own way, nurses them in sickness, provides them with food and shelter, managing the meager allowance she often is given by August.
The story tells a tale of racism, sexual abuse, poverty, faith, humiliation, illness, and adultery. Hattie’s courage and quiet guidance is often misunderstood for coldness. She too is prone to outbursts of anger and misguided ways as are many of her children. She too makes foolish decisions for which she repents. Her life is one of unappreciated sacrifice.
The reader is left to wonder if the travails visited upon the family are the results of their environment, the world they lived in or of their own personal failures and/or genetic inheritance. The lack of civil rights during most of her life, the lack of life saving drugs, the lack of equality, shaped all of them in different ways. They earned their livings in the only ways they could find acceptable and profitable. Some were more honorable than others. The humiliation they had to swallow as others swallow water was difficult to read about and difficult to put into the context of America. How in G-d’s name did such egregious behavior, against a particular group of people, continue to be acceptable for so long, in an enlightened world? How did they manage to submit to the mortification to which they were subjected? How did they conceal their shame and their fury? Some were unable and paid a heavy price.
It is through the brief lives of the twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, Floyd, Hattie’s musician son, who is also gay, Six who is frail and scarred from a terrible accident, who is subject to uncontrollable fits of violence, who then becomes somewhat of a charlatan minister, her daughter Cassie, who hears voices telling her to do irrational things, Cassie’s daughter Sala, her grandchild who finally breaks through Hattie’s rigid persona, Alice who is often medicated by her husband because she is haunted by visions of Tom, a man who once abused her brother, Billips, who is described as somewhat limited in capability, Belle who has TB and who tries to commit suicide when her boyfriend Walter leaves her by discontinuing her medications and starving herself, who also engages in an affair with the same man, Lawrence, with whom Hattie had an affair and a child, causing an irreparable rift between them, Ruthie (known also as Margaret), who was the love child of Hattie and Lawrence, Ella who was a child Hattie couldn’t care for properly because August was out of work and so she gives her to her well-to-do sister Pearl, and Franklin, who is married to Sissy, who is father of Lucille, is stationed in Saigon, and whose drinking, gambling, and womanizing are the ruination of his life and his marriage. These are all common threads throughout the story.
It is a sad story about faith in the presence of hopelessness, conquest in the presence of enemies, bravery in the presence of danger on every front and incredibly foolish decisions often based on a lack of knowledge and/or self-control. In this book, as in many others today, the woman in the home seems to be the stronger influence, the more stabilizing factor, the one with the most responsibility for instilling values. The men often go far afield of expectations and often excuse their own stupid behavior, until there are dire consequences.