The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

18th Jan 2013

Ayana Mathis the Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Immigration may have built modern America, but migrations have shaped it. From the push to the western frontier, to the people uprooted by the Dust Bowl (as told in Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath), the American population has been on the move.

And then, while the country was embroiled in two world wars and the Great Depression, there was the Great Migration – the movement of over 6 million African-Americans origin who were fleeing the oppressive, segregated South. In 1900, only 8% of the nation’s African-American population lived outside the South. By 1970, at the tail end of the Great Migration, this figure had reached nearly 50%.

Ayana Mathis’ extraordinary début novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is the story of this migration – but it’s not a historian’s telling.

The titular twelve tribes are the eleven children and one grandchild of Hattie Shepherd, who leaves Georgia in 1925 as a 17-year-old bride and moves to Philadelphia, with its cruel winters but potentially brighter future.

Hattie and her husband, August, rent a house, settle in with their newborn children, enjoy the summer, and dream of saving up to buy a place of their own. That first winter, however, takes Hattie’s infant twins from her, leaving her hardened forever.

It is through her children that Hattie lives – not through any sentimental version of love, but rather the relentless demands of hungry mouths... Mathis shows us Hattie from girlhood through to old age, as she faces her children’s deaths, her husband’s betrayal, the loss of love, and a final show of strength.

It is almost always through a kaleidoscopic fracturing of impressions that we see her, with chapters told from her different children’s perspective.

It is through the children’s own lives that we learn about their mother, just as is through her children that Hattie lives – not through any sentimental kind of love, but rather the relentless demands of hungry mouths, and the rigour and routine that the combination of her poverty and pride imposes on her.

There is the son who suffers severe burns as a child, and becomes a phony preacher back in the South; there is the daughter who marries the wealthy local doctor, and lives in grand and depressed isolation; there is the daughter struggling with TB. Few of Hattie’s offspring are happy. All take different paths, and none of them, it seems live anything other than extraordinary lives.

The men of the novel are failures – failures as fathers, lovers, employees. Hattie’s husband, August, fails her in almost every way, including failing to understand why she feels let down.

Her lover is addicted to gambling. Her sister, Pearl, is married to a man who cannot understand the deep longing for a child that leads her to adopt Hattie’s last baby. Hattie feels that she can depend on nobody but herself. You can’t help but feel that she might be right.

The misery is at times almost too unrelenting, and the effect of these crises upon crises close to melodramatic – but this is tempered by Mathis’ profound grasp of psychology and human relationships.

Even when we see a character acting harshly, or cruelly, or thoughtlessly, they are so brilliantly drawn that we understand both their own perspective and that of others almost at once, with a kind of flickering insight that leaves nobody either wholly unlovable, nor thoroughly likable.

And Hattie herself? She remains an enigma, as complex, inscrutable, flawed and awe-inspiring a woman as you’re likely to find in any other novel this year.

Having been selected – and deserving so – for Oprah’s Book Group 2.0, Mathis’ novel is destined to reach a wide audience, and will leave an impression of bittersweet beauty on all its readers.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was published in hardback on 17th January by Hutchinson, and is available from Foyles, Amazon, or your local independent bookshop, priced at £12.99. An ebook version is also available, priced at £8.54.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Anyone interested in modern American history, families, or just great books.

Other recommended reading: Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns is the definitive historical account of the Great Migration. Mathis herself cites Toni Morrison as a great inspiration, should you need an excuse to check out her back catalogue.

Claire Strickett