The Twelve Tribes of Hattie: book review

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. Publisher: Knopf (December 2012). Contemporary fiction. 256 pg. ISBN: 978-0-385-35028-0.

“Hattie had kept them all alive with sheer will and collard greens and some old southern remedies. Mean as a dickens, though. Well, she’s an old woman now, Bell thought. She hadn’t seen Hattie in nearly a decade. And she didn’t have a single picture of her and would die without seeing her face again. Alice and Ruthie said Hattie had mellowed, she laughed now and again and smiled a lot and bounced her grandchildren on her knee.”

Writing about complicated and rancorous characters in a graceful and compelling manner makes The Twelve Tribes of Hattie such a wonderful, engrossing read. Hattie isn’t a perfect mother. She hasn’t raised perfect children. She’s often tired, over-worked and miserable. She’s not overly sentimental or affectionate and disciplines her children without an afterthought. She’s persevering and a force. In 1925, at 15 years old she got pregnant and married August who becomes increasingly unreliable and philandering throughout the years. The one positive in that union seems to be that she escaped the Jim Crow south and moved to Philadelphia.

Through colorful prose and honest, emotional storytelling, Ayana Mathis tells the stories of these children over a sixty year span. Her children have names like Philadelphia, Jubilee, Bell, Six, Ruthie, Ella, Billups and Alice. [“Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren’t chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”] Each chapter focuses on a different child and his or her relationship to Hattie and other siblings. While Hattie might not be the focal point she’s woven into each chapter. Twins die of pneumonia. One girl she reluctantly allows her childless sister to adopt. Some children are parents, some not. One son moved south to become a minister. A daughter married into money. Another daughter initiates an affair with the same man her mother loved many years before. Another daughter goes crazy and must be sent away to a mental institution.

These are the struggles of an African-American family finding their places during tenuous, radical times. More than a matriarchal story, between these pages you discover the precarious threads between mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. It’s a delicate meditation on race and gender. On society, customs and humanity.

This is the second pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. I’ve read many of Oprah’s book club selections. Oprah and her staff choose books that start conversations and have encouraged so many to read that may not have otherwise.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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