Rebecca's Reviews > The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
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it was amazing
bookshelves: historical-fiction, best-of-2013, reviewed-bookkaholic

Mathis’s debut novel is the achingly sad saga of one black family making their way north and fighting to break free from poverty and prejudice.

In the early years of the 1920s, Hattie Shepherd longs to escape from Georgia, where her father was lynched. When she marries August, they set off hopefully for Pennsylvania only to watch their seven-month-old twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, die of pneumonia despite Hattie’s desperate ministrations.

This loss will haunt Hattie throughout the years to come, even though she bears nine more children (who, together with the dead twins and a granddaughter, form the twelve tribes of the title – an explicit echo of the dozen tribes of Israel in the Hebrew Bible). Violence, disappointment, love affairs, and discrimination: from the 1920s through to the 1980s, Mathis traces an American family in crisis and suggests that, clichéd as it may sound, love may have the power to heal what seem like fatal emotional wounds.

Each chapter shifts to the perspective of another of Hattie’s offspring, in either first- or third-person narration, making for an impressive variety of voices and styles. Readers gain an intimate view of each of the children, but also of Hattie herself, through the composite, peripheral glances each chapter allows. Hattie is a troublesome yet compelling character; as cold as she often seems to her children, she feels things deeply. One perceptive daughter realizes “She’d never seen her mother laugh…She’d never seen any joy in her at all. Hattie had been stern and angry all of Bell’s life, and it occurred to her that her mother must have been very unhappy most of the time.”

Mathis’s novel is also strong at the level of language and allusion; she subverts scriptural narratives even as she relies on them for structure. The pattern of devoting one chapter to each family member reminded me of Hanna Pylväinen’s excellent We Sinners , while the portentous biblical rhetoric, applied to the reality of southern and/or African-American lives, recalls not just Morrison and Walker but also William Faulkner. It’s no surprise that Oprah Winfrey chose The Twelve Tribes of Hattie for her book club relaunch. With writing this confident and characters this convincing, it will be a pleasure to await Mathis’s next work of fiction.

(This review formed part of an article on my Best Fiction Reads of 2013 for Bookkaholic.)
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Reading Progress

December 30, 2012 – Shelved
September 16, 2013 – Started Reading
September 19, 2013 –
page 217
September 21, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
September 21, 2013 – Finished Reading
December 23, 2013 – Shelved as: best-of-2013
December 23, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed-bookkaholic

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Walters Thanks... I keep forgetting this one! beautiful 2 reviews!

Keyshia Dorsey Her father wasn't lynched he was shot. Still good review though.

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