The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis | Book review
Mathis’s spellbinding debut novel lives up to the hype.
Ayana Mathis’s much-hyped debut novel is as good as you’ve heard it is. “Novel” is actually a misnomer; The Twelve Tribes of Hattie comprises a dozen linked stories, one for each of Hattie’s offspring, including a granddaughter she raises when she’s in her seventies. The Shepherd family endures grave hardships throughout the 50 years chronicled, and Mathis’s narrative structure enables her to explore gut-wrenching moments from multiple perspectives. By the time we experience teenage daughter Bell’s memory of her mother running off with another man, we already know what prompted Hattie’s departure (and subsequent return). Mathis evokes sympathy for her characters, even the borderline villainous ones.
Hattie remains on the sidelines throughout: She has no chapter, which is fitting, given that her role as matriarch defines her existence. In 1923, she migrates at age 15 from rural Georgia to Philadelphia. Like many African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, she hopes to build a life for herself in the North, “the New Jerusalem.” By 17, she’s married to August, who’s out most nights spending what little money they have on other women, and she’s left to care for their sickly infant twins on her own. Each subsequent birth hardens Hattie, but she can’t stop getting pregnant due to “her body’s insistence on a man who was the greatest mistake of her life.” As the Shepherd clan grows and spreads out—to Alabama, Vietnam and elsewhere—Hattie bears witness to it all with few complaints: Motherhood has made her a martyr. It’s a sorrowful saga, but The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is so well-told and such an honest exploration of what it means to be a family, even one bound by suffering, that you’ll be riveted to the end.