The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
When Oprah reinvented her book club in 2012, she elevated Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to near mythic status (I found Wild so tedious, I didn’t have the energy to write a post). Oprah’s 2013 choice was a first novel that hasn’t found quite that Wild level of ubiquitous success, but mega-bestselling annointment is definitely the next best way to launch a literary career. Besides, Ayana Mathis‘ Twelve Tribes resonates much more with Oprah’s usual-suspects: long-suffering protagonists (especially women) who must fight not only social oppression – usually with racial or classist overtones – but degradation caused by so-called loved ones, as well.
Hattie Shepherd, the novel’s matriarch, is still a teenager when she moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. By 17, she’s a married woman with twins. Her babies fall victim to pneumonia at seven months and die; Hattie never quite recovers in the more than half century she births, raises, and lets go of nine more children. Hattie is crippled by her bitterness towards her philandering husband, her impatience with trying to control her needy offspring, her disappointment over their lives as adults. Her difficulties render her incapable of ever openly showing love and affection to those she cares about most.
Over 10 chapters that read like interlinked short stories, Hattie’s maturity from teenaged mother to weathered grandmother is revealed via dovetailing glimpses of her children’s lives, mirroring the restrictive, challenging, not-changing-fast-enough African American experience of the 20th century. Floyd womanizes to cover his homosexuality, Six’s violent temper leads him to become a man of God, both Ruthie and Ella will always be someone else’s daughters, Alice pops pills convinced her life purpose is to take care of brother Billy whom she couldn’t protect as a child, Franklin gambles away his family, Bell gives up, Cassie succumbs to voices, and … in the final chapter, only Sala seems to look at her future with any hope.
No, this isn’t a feel-good story by any stretch of the imagination [Oprah chose it, ahem!]. That Hattie survives with her back straight and her head held high is perhaps the title’s greatest achievement. For those who want to go beyond the page, a cast of veteran narrators adeptly imbue the characters with urgent immediacy. Here’s to resilience – Hattie’s and committed readers both!