The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

  • Ayana Mathis
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 256 pp.

This first fiction pick of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 is a beautifully written portrait of a mother’s struggles to raise a large family in the face of poverty and oppression.

Mothers are the first ones we thank when things go right, and the first ones we blame when they go wrong. They give us life. They raise us. They are as American as apple pie. But a lot of things American are not as sweet or as wholesome as apple pie. America came into this world bearing the mark of sin. That sin haunts us to this day, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

At the heart of Ayana Mathis’ profoundly moving and beautifully written debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is the matriarch of the sprawling and troubled Shepherd family. Hattie is the force that keeps her children fed and clothed, nurses them through their sicknesses, sees to their education. And for all her effort, most of her children grow up resenting her as the source of their own problems. Nursing the wounds of their mother’s missteps, they yearn for more than she was able to give them.

Hattie flees Georgia in the 1920s with her mother and sisters after her father, a prosperous blacksmith, was murdered by white men. They settle in Philadelphia, where Hattie, at 15, meets August Shepherd, another migrant from the South. “She only liked August because he was a secret from her mama, and because it thrilled her to go out with a country boy she thought beneath her.” They have a short courtship that quickly cools off, but by then it is too late. She is pregnant. As with many other tragic heroines of great literature, her fate is sealed by the decision to marry the wrong man.

At 16, she gives birth to the first of her 11 children, a pair of twins named Philadelphia and Jubilee. They are children of the “New Jerusalem” of the North, “already among those luminous souls, already the beginning of a new nation.” At seven months old, they die, much like the promise of freedom and equality in the North does for many.

Hattie goes on to have nine more children. As the babies keep on coming, there is never enough money because August is “always out at the nightclubs or at the jukes ... dressed up like the mayor of Philadelphia while Hattie was at home on Wayne Street elbow deep in dishwater.” Hattie saves up what little money she can for a house, stashing it in a tin can that August constantly raids. Though August loves his children, he fails as a provider and a role model. Despite his shortcomings, most of his children do not blame him for the way their lives have turned out.

Instead, they save all their hurt and resentment for their mother. Hattie is by no means a perfect woman. Because she has so many children, every day is a struggle to care for them adequately. With all her energy taken up with tending to her children, she has nothing left over for tenderness. As her daughter Bell muses, “Hattie had kept them all alive with sheer will and collard greens and some old southern remedies. Mean as the dickens though.” One by one, in story after heartbreaking story, her children lament their mother’s lack of warmth. For some, it scars so deeply that they never recover.

From Hattie’s children, we get glimpses of her trials. She suffers debilitating depression over the death of her twins, staying in her nightgown all day, feeding her children “cold rice with milk and sugar or a plate of buttered crackers or baked beans still in the can — at whatever hour she managed to prepare the food.” Years later, she is seen by her daughter Bell walking happily down the street, arm in arm with a man, not Bell’s father, who “brought out a light in Hattie that Bell hadn’t any hope of seeing.” That man fathers one of Hattie’s children, and she briefly flees town with him, leaving behind all her children but his, until she realizes that he will only bring her the same heartache and uncertainty that August has. Another daughter, Cassie, showed so much talent playing the piano that she is offered free lessons, but Hattie refuses because “it wasn’t practical for a Negro girl to fill her head with music. ‘What’s she going to do with that?’” On welfare and subject to weekly home assessments, Hattie gives away her last-born to her childless and wealthy sister, to be brought up in the Jim Crow South that she herself has vowed never to go back to.

Hattie is not unaware of her children’s resentment. “She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.”

With extraordinary, intricate detail, and not one unnecessary word, Ayana Mathis has woven a portrait of a family spanning three generations and the challenges they face being poor, oppressed and repressed. Like the Twelve Tribes of Israel whom Moses led out of Egypt, Hattie’s descendants wander in the wilderness. They stumble; they get lost; they are unable to attain the American Dream.

But in the final chapter, named for Hattie’s grandchild, Sala, Hattie and August have finally managed to buy their own house. Fifty-five years after the death of her twins, Hattie can now afford to add some tenderness to the sacrifices that she is still making for her descendants, and we are left with the hope that her granddaughter will attain her rightful place in the Promised Land.

Alice Stephens is a frequent contributor to The Independent.

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