The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

One sentence plot

Fleeing the Jim Crow laws of the south, Hattie moves to Philadelphia as an bright young African American woman soon embittered by the death of her first two children; the rest of her story is told through episodes in the lives of her many subsequent children.


The review

I was primed to love this book after hearing the charming Ayana Mathis speaking about it at the National Book Festival in Washington last month, not to mention the numerous audience members who declared it the best book they have ever read. It was not the best book I have ever read (though I doubt I could name that without some extensive musing!), but I did enjoy The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as an insight into the lives of African American people impacted by the Jim Crow laws in the south of the United States.

The ‘twelve tribes’ in question are the twelve people who depend on Hattie to raise them and care for them (eleven children and a grandchild), and after the first chapter, the book is told through their various voices. The first chapter addresses the pivotal point in Hattie’s life: the death of her first children, her beloved twins. That event changes Hattie from the bright, optimistic young girl whose voice is so charming on the page, to a rather lost, disappointed, cynical woman who can only express her love for her children by grimly focusing on keeping them alive. The first chapter is a delight (though it made me cry). But I’m not sure what to make of the rest of the chapters.

Each chapter is a snapshot into the life of one of Hattie’s children, and these provide interesting and varied insights into some of the paths that an African American person who grew up in relative poverty (of money and affection) in the mid-20th century might take. The paths taken range from a life of preaching and womanizing, to a jazz musician discovering his homosexuality, to a soldier in Vietnam, to various versions of unhappy marriages and alcoholism, struggling to move up the social classes, and sometimes falling even lower. While we receive these snapshots, we receive insight into different aspects of Hattie, and slowly as the book progresses, the sympathy for her that we originally had and started to lose midbook comes creeping back near the end.

I thought the book was patchy – using so many different voices can be risky, because they inevitably hit different levels of compelling… in fact I found myself flicking through parts of a couple of the chapters, though many of them held me. I really liked the technique of revealing Hattie through her children, but I found it frustrating that each chapter felt as though it stood alone – it would have been much more pleasing for links and parallels and characters to run through the different stories, as might reasonably be expected from the varied stories of one family. It might also have been a more enjoyable read if at least some of Hattie’s charges had ended up happy, or contented, or even not entirely miserable. Or if any of the men in the book had turned out to be anything other than pathetic losers. The book itself has quite an upbeat tone… but the more I read about these children doing so badly, the more I felt pessimistic about the world. It’s like an anti-American dream, somehow.

All that said, I would, with caveats, recommend the book. It’s an interesting read and historically informative, it paints an intriguing picture of living in a certain time and place, and many of the characters come alive off the page. The writing is lovely. And the technique of revealing Hattie through the third person voices of her adult children, while not perfectly rendered, is compelling. I think that those who adore this book relate to it in ways that I didn’t. But I still thought it was quite good.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes


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