The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis



The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Ayana Mathis

2012, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 243 pages

Favourite quotation: “Maybe, Six thought, there wasn’t anything purely good or holy. Maybe good was only accomplished indirectly and through unlikely channels: fake healings or a room full of jealous angry men with Bibles who nonetheless drew these sad people and lifted their spirits for a few days.” (p. 71)

The title of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie evokes a biblical image of ancestry and hereditary. This fits in with the story, one that is grounded in the importance of family. Hattie is the mother of eleven children, only ten of whom survive infancy, and all of whom take different paths. Yet regardless of their vastly different lives, the reader sees how each of Hattie’s children has been irreversibly shaped by her role as their mother. I found this book to be a beautifully realistic depiction of family, one made even more interesting by its backdrop of the mid-20th century and the civil rights movement in the United States.

Hattie Shepherd is a young mother, who along with thousands of other African Americans has recently made the journey from the southern US to the industrial northeast, settling in Philadelphia with her husband August. Her future seems to be full of hope and possibility, yet the sudden death of her first children changes her profoundly and in many ways determines her life’s path. The book follows a unique structure, with each chapter centring on one or two of Hattie’s children for a short period of time, and the final chapter focusing on one of her grandchild. These chapters are diverse, with some focusing on that character’s childhood and others on a period in their adult life. While Hattie’s children lead very different lives – one is an evangelical preacher in Georgia, another a wealthy housewife struggling with childhood memories, another a mentally ill mother of one – they all share some of her characteristics. Her strengths and weaknesses as a mother are gradually revealed through each character’s narrative, so while the book is divided among Hattie’s “twelve tribes”, it ends up telling her story more than any other.

I loved The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Its realism makes for a story that is gritty at times, but I appreciated how Mathis didn’t put Hattie on a pedestal or idealize any character in particular. All are viewed as ordinary humans with challenges of their own. I found the book to be a quick read and actually finished it in an afternoon because I was so interested in the story. I did find myself wanting to know more about certain characters, especially Lawrence and Six whose chapters were early in the story; though they are referred to in later chapters I sometimes wished for a bit more development of their narratives. Yet the mystery this creates does contribute to the somewhat dreamlike, reminiscent tone of the novel, so I can understand why Mathis chose this structure. Overall, I loved The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and recommend it highly.

– I had read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration a couple of years ago, and found it helped me understand Hattie’s story and its place the American national narrative. Mathis cites it in her Acknowledgements as having been highly important to her, and I think it does a great job in explaining this pivotal moment in history.

– I really enjoyed Guernica’s interview with Mathis, which I happened to come across the day I read this book. Find it here.


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