At the opening of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Hattie is a new mother in Philadelphia in 1925 – full of hope for her future life with her husband August and the future of their twin babies – before she experiences another tragic loss. Already grieving the recent death of her mother, who had brought Hattie and her sisters to Philadelphia to escape the South’s racist Jim Crow laws after their father was murdered with impunity by white men, Hattie withstands this new blow, essentially alone because her sisters have gone back to Georgia. Steeped in sorrow, Hattie stays in the North and raises her children – eleven in all. It’s a very hard life.
The second chapter jumps forward to 1948, which might bother readers who were expecting to settle into a sad (but ultimately uplifting) ongoing saga about a multi-generational family with a tough but loving mother. (That’s why I’m giving you this heads-up!) The novel is divided into ten separate stories – linked by their connection with Hattie – each story or vignette centering on one or a pair of Hattie’s adult children. The last one is about Hattie’s granddaughter Sala in 1980. Through the thoughts and memories of Hattie’s children, readers learn more about the central figure of Hattie throughout the novel, but each chapter is a full story on its own, encapsulating the siblings’ own scarred and difficult lives, coming out of an impoverished environment.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is frequently described in reader reviews as bleak, which may scare some off. The Oprah Book Club selection of the book may scare other readers off. Other readers don’t care for linked stories masquerading as a novel. None of those objections matter. You really must read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not put it off, like I did.
When I heard the author Ayana Mathis (Twelve Tribes of Hattie is her first novel.) speak in a panel discussion at last October’s Boston Book Festival along with novelists Kim McLarin and Paul Harding, I immediately added her book to my list of books to read. (The panel was Fiction: Out of Darkness. You can hear the archived audio of it and other events from that day here.) Asked about Hattie, her central character, suffering so much throughout her life, Ayana Mathis said she doesn’t think of the novel as sad or despairing, or Hattie as a hard mother, adding, “Although she loves her children, she raises them to be tough as tough.” She also said that although the novel is often cast as a story of the Great Migration (of African-Americans from southern states to cities in the northern part of the U.S.), she believes it speaks to universal human experience.
If you liked and admired Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (another book that is often described as “bleak”) because of the characters (not the Maine or the small-town setting), you will want to read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Disclosure: I read this book as an Oprah 2.0 Book Club digital edition – downloaded through my public library’s Overdrive e-book lending service. The 2.0 edition came with significant passages disconcertingly already highlighted in yellow, but I got used to it!