The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
By Ayana Mathis
I’ve recently developed an interest in the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans from the south to the industrial North between 1915 and 1930. I’ve been reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration on and off for the past few months and found The Twelve Tribes of Hattie a great fictional take on American history. (Ayana Mathis mentions Warmth and its impact in interviews.)
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie documents the lives of 11 of Hattie Shephard’s children, one of her grandchildren and, in a way, Hattie herself.
Hattie moves to Philadelphia from Georgia as a teenager and swears to never go back. Through the stories of her children, the reader sees a teenaged Hattie grow into a mother and grandmother.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of short stories and this book felt like a collection of related short stories. Each chapter was dedicated to one (at times two) of Hattie’s children.
I loved that each of the chapters had a different feel and flow that complimented the personality of the child it focused on. In the middle of the book I realized I kept trying to figure out the order of birth and how each child’s story/chapter fit chronologically with the other eleven. Even that confusion was appropriate and telling of the organized chaos of the household. The point of the book wasn’t to give a timeline of each child, but to pinpoint a part in their lives that not only defined them, but also their relationship with Hattie.
My favorite stories were those of Alice and Billups and Rose. Their stories are heartbreaking and so different. Each highlight Hattie’s failings or strengths as a mother and how it impacts some of her children. Alice and Billups share a chapter and a terrible childhood secret. At the beginning, the line between imagination and reality is blurred, but as Mathis begins to show the reader, bit by bit, what happened to the siblings as children and their current life as adults, I realized Mathis’ talent as a storyteller and became a fan.
I read the ebook, Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 version, which included Oprah’s notes in the text. Didn’t like that. Early into the book I stopped reading her notes. For me, it was distracting. But overall, a great debut novel.
Even more so than reading the book, I’m excited to see Mathis at a reading at Politics and Prose later this week. What perfect timing…
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