A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family.
In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.
Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last—glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream, Mathis’s first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.
Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)
I randomly bought The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (the UK edition) in 2014 from my local bookstore. I didn’t even plan on reading the book this year, but it was smiling at me from my bookshelf, so I finally decided to pick it up!
Hattie, a ‘high yellow’ girl from Georgia escapes Jim Crow to Philadelphia with her mother and sisters in hope of a better life in the North. Hattie and her forbidden boyfriend, August Shepherd (also a Georgia native) get married and she gives birth to twins – Philadelphia and Jubilee at the age of seventeen. Due to the harsh winter in Philadelphia and poor living conditions, Hattie’s twins catch pneumonia and eventually die, only three months after their birth. The death of the twins, August’s poor paying job and Hattie’s helplessness up North taint her soul and morph her into a cold, resentful, miserable woman. Despite their strained relationship (as a result of infidelity from both parties), Hattie and August have nine children over the years. This book follows the Shepherds – Hattie, her children and grandchild from 1948 to the 1980’s.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was a wonderful page-turner! I honestly do not have any issues with this book because it was simply an excellent read. I read each chapter as a short story, since each chapter focused on one of Hattie’s nine children, intertwined with Hattie and her husband August’s history. Each chapter had its own twists and turns as readers got acquainted with Hattie’s children and whatever issues they faced in their lives.
I loved that all of Hattie’s children had diverse lives and they all faced real joys and pain: Floyd dealt with conflicting homosexual desires; Six found solace in religion and preaching; Billups was molested as a child; Franklin was a soldier in Vietnam and battled with alcoholism; Alice was a controlling middle-class housewife who was perpetually on tranquilizing medication (given to her by her doctor husband); Ruthie may or may not be August’s daughter; Baby Ella was reluctantly sent to live with Hattie’s barren sister in Georgia as Hattie was struggling to make ends meet; Bell was self-destructive – mentally and physically and Cassie was schizophrenic. Cassie’s daughter, Sala (Hattie’s granddaughter) is the last one of Hattie’s brood and readers witness her desires to become a born-again Christian, at the tender age of 10. Hattie’s demeanor definitely played an important role in the future of her children’s lives. Yes, Hattie may seem to be an unlovable, stern, sometimes cold woman – but I understood her character.
One thing I found intriguing was that Hattie and her children were described to be ‘the color of the inside of an almond’, which suggests that they were a light-skinned, black family in Philadelphia. August was described as the color of cinnamon – which is obviously darker than the color of the inside of an almond. Clearly, Jim Crow did not discriminate – whether you were dark or light-skinned, all black people faced discrimination and endured hardships; readers ultimately witness this in the lives of all the characters.
Some readers of this novel feel that Mathis’s development of the characters was brief and that there is little or no interaction between the children in the various chapters. This was not a problem for me. As I mentioned before, I read each chapter as a short story and was content with Mathis’s depiction of all the characters – they all felt very real! Apparently, new writer – Angela Flournoy’s 2015 debut novel, The Turner House (which is a recent finalist for the 2015 National Book Award – winner will be announced tomorrow!) is a similar, ‘better’ historic novel compared to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. I haven’t read Flournoy’s novel yet, but I finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie feeling satisfied. Be prepared for a long, powerful ride.
Note: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is adult fiction. Ideally, readers should be 18 years and older to indulge.
★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!
Purchase The Twelve Tribes of Hattie on Amazon