The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Sep 5, 2013

This novel is a linked set of stories about the life and children of Hattie, a black woman brought up in the South who moves to Philadelphia as a young girl, marries young and pregnant, and has 11 kids. The book starts in 1925 and ends in 1980, and is a vivid saga of damage, destruction, struggle and love.

We get to know Hattie and her kids in little glimpses, each one fraught with pain and sometimes—all too infrequently—transcendent joy. Ayana Mathis’ writing is beautiful and her vision is grand—a chronicle of one ordinary, lower-middle-class family in the Black Diaspora. Through it all we learn more about Hattie (who was raised with some privilege) and her husband, August, and begin to understand the society that they, and we, live in.

Each of the chapters has a dramatic arc (the first one will shatter you; there is one daughter dying of TB, and one who has a Mrs. Dalloway sort of day that goes catastrophically astray; a musician son travelling in the south has an unforgettable encounter) but Mathis avoids clichés and Great Moments in History, instead focusing on a day or so in each child’s life, whether they are babies or middle-aged. What stood out for me was the psychic damage eating away at nearly every character. I read it as an indictment, through storytelling rather than statistics, of how the steady drumbeat of racial prejudice and inequity can form, and deform, lives.

In her acknowledgements, Mathis, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, thanks our own local novelist and teacher Michele Huneven and references the history best-seller The Warmth of Other Suns, reviewed here.



Mel Malmberg can be found on Twitter at 365Shakespeare. Her mission: “Shakespeare every day for a year. Starting April 23, 2013, I am going to read, listen to or watch Shakespeare, posting, blogging and tweeting daily.” 



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