My cousin chose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis for our online family book group, and I was thrilled to finally have a chance to read this highly acclaimed novel that was published in 2012. It is the compelling and emotionally powerful story of a family, set against the backdrop of the changing face of America in the 20th century.
The novel is divided into twelve chapters, each of which is a separate story focusing on a different character, all part of the same family. Hattie, the family matriarch, begins her journey (both emotional and physical) in 1923 when, at 15 years old, she and her mother and sister leave their home in Georgia to move north to Philadelphia, where they’ve heard there are plenty of opportunities and less discrimination for a black family. Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as that, and Hattie experiences more than her share of hardship in Philadelphia.
Each chapter focuses on one of Hattie’s children (or, toward the end, grandchildren), so the reader learns about Hattie’s life through the stories of her offspring. Each chapter also moves forward in time. Chapter 1 takes place in the winter of 1925, when Hattie, only 17, is married and living in a small rented house in Philadelphia, desperately and tenderly caring for her twin babies who are very sick with what sounds like pneumonia. Each following chapter is labeled with the year (through 1980) and the name of another of Hattie’s children, sometimes looking at them as adults and sometimes peeking into their childhoods.
Through these separate but linked stories, we get a full picture of Hattie’s life: her dreams and her reality. It’s not an easy life or a happy one. Hattie devotes her life to raising her children, with her own pain and disappointment coloring everything she does. She’s not an affectionate or tender mother, but she does her best to try to prepare each of her children for a cruel and unforgiving world. As she fears, there are plenty of tragedies and challenges for her offspring. All of those personal stories are told against the backdrop of the changing U.S., with glimpses in each chapter of what is going on in the world and how things are changing for the characters.
It’s a very well-written and creative novel, though it is quite depressing. Life is very hard for Hattie and her children. The book does end on a note of hope, with a glimmer of better things to come for the next generation, and I really needed that and thought it was the perfect ending. The author pulls no punches – this novel is raw and emotional and compelling, as Hattie faces the never-ending adversity head-on and never gives up (though she comes close at times). The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Mathis’ first novel, and it shows her considerable talent as a writer and storyteller. I hope there will be many more to come!
243 pages, Alfred A. Knopf