Ayana Mathis’s debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, has been widely received with almost devotional rapture anointed by Oprah Winfrey as a selection for her Book Club 2.0.
The book opens with a teenage Hattie Shepherd, married to August, bursting with joy and optimism after the birth of twins Philadelphia and Jubilee “names of purpose and hope”. But soon the both babies are ill and she only slowly realises that love cannot compensate for her inability to protect them. As she nurses them “a recollection descended on her like a faint” of she and her family sneaking “like thieves through the woods”, to catch a train taking them from Georgia, the heart of the Jim Crow south of America, to Philadelphia, which promised them at least a dream. For Hattie, that dream ends when the twins died, “in the order in which they were born: first Philadelphia, then Jubilee.”
Although Hattie goes on to bear another ten children the twins’ death had stripped her not of caring, but of love. She knows she is nicknamed The General by her brood but she reckons “they didn’t understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.” And it wasn’t. The book is structured so that each of the chapters after the initial scene setters is devoted to one, or occasionally two, of Hattie’s “tribe”. Too soon, you find yourself approaching the start of each new story with a sense of foreboding for there are plagues of biblical proportion being visited on all her children. No locusts or boils here, these are the modern plagues of alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, infidelity, insanity and plain old bad luck.
There is her daughter Bell who “insisted upon her disappointment with Hattie,” who “reviewed every moment of her childhood and found it full of Hattie’s …rages and silences.” And who cruelly plots her revenge on her mother “not the angry, exhausted Hattie but the laughing beautiful woman,” she had seen on one occasion, on the street, a joyfulness Hattie would not share with her. And Franklin who marries the girl he relentlessly pursued then relentlessly gambles and cheats on her until she leaves him. He has joined the Navy and we meet him amongst the bloody carnage of war, ridiculed by the other men over his plans to win her back, plans he knows are futile, instead giving him “ relief to know the people I love are free of me, that I don’t have to pretend to myself.”
There is Cassie who hears voices and Six, terribly burnt as a child who is sent south to join a church after almost killing a boy in a fight, but who uses religion as a means to con people out of money and sex.
Ironically it is the feckless August, who remained an incidental husband and father throughout, who is there with Hattie when she is able to finally gets her little house of her own and to look with optimism on the life of a new generation.
Mathis’s work has been likened to that of Toni Morrison and there are certainly strong similarities in the grinding emotion of a family fleeing the relentless brutality and indignity of the South for something that was supposed to be better. In Hattie Shepherd she has created a memorable heroine who despite, or perhaps because of, her single-minded pursuit of pure survival remains a surprisingly sympathetic character. But making one family a microcosm of all the inequality, pain, frailty and failure eventually diluted rather than enhanced the intensity.