THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE
By Ayana Mathis
Knopf Doubleday, $24.95
In Ayana Mathis’s debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, she brings readers on a gripping and poignant journey into the lives of a mother and the hardships facing her children she raises through the Great Migration, through Jim Crow, the civil rights era and the ’80s.
Mathis’s book has also earned her a coveted spot in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, an unexpected endorsement Mathis said has helped her book find many more readers.
“I was surprised and elated” with Oprah’s endorsement, Mathis said in a March 7 telephone interview. She is currently on book tour.
Oprah interviewed Mathis in “O” Magazine in January and on the Oprah Network in February. “The spirit of sacred truths leaped from the pages,” Oprah said on her book club website. “The opening chapter absolutely floored me.
“I knew I was having the privilege of witnessing a great writer’s career begin.”
Mathis’s title character, Hattie Shepherd, opens the book in a desperate attempt to cure her infant twins of pneumonia, using her own home-concocted remedies that ultimately fail. “Hattie could not bear their suffering, but she wanted them to go in peace so she did not scream … She pressed her cheeks to the tops of their heads … She felt their deaths like a ripping in her body …”
Many other passages throughout Mathis’s book give it the heart-gripping realism that help make her characters’ situations feel so real to its readers.
Too proud to accept help from an area elder woman, Hattie relies instead on old country remedies the doctor advises against. Simple penicillin could have saved Hattie’s twins. Years later, readers find Hattie suffering from grief and depression following the children’s deaths. In the 1940s, she often does not arise from her bed until afternoon and “floated though the rooms of the house, pale and silent as an iceberg.” Her living children, Floyd and Cassie, eat cold rice with milk and sugar … or cold, canned baked beans.
Other failures haunt Hattie throughout the book. She’d sent her son Six to Alabama where he’d become an “imposter” preacher and a womanizer. She’d given up her child Ella to her sister in Georgia and her mentally ill daughter, Cassie, she’d sent away as well.
Yet, ultimately, evidence of growth, love, tenderness and wisdom emerges from Hattie when she takes on the responsibility of raising her granddaughter and draws closer to the church and to her husband.
Through its many characters, Mathis’ book explores a multitude of themes, from characters making poor life choices, identity struggles, racism, loss and grieving to depression, mental illness, relationships and sexuality.
Mathis is a graduate of and now teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. She drew much of her book material from a pool of experiences, a good imagination and listening to her elders, she said. She also drew inspiration from author Toni Morrison, she said.
“I think writers draw on personal experiences and observations of the world … My mother grew up with people from that era and I drew from that and from a lifetime of reading,” Mathis said. “ … Many of those things find their way into your work.”
Mathis’s central character, Hattie, is a disappointed wife and mother who is frustrated raising her children in poverty in a rent house in Philadelphia. She grew up the daughter of the only black business man in a town in Georgia.
Hattie blames much of her predicament on her husband, Lawrence, whom she describes as a womanizer.
“I have been a mule 25 years … I have saved money for down payments on two houses and ended up spending it on light bills and clothes for these children” she tells Lawrence. “From when I open my eyes in the morning to when I lie down again at night, you make me miserable.”
Only when Hattie briefly leaves Lawrence for another man, does Lawrence begin to feel powerless, that “his life had crumpled like a lump of dry earth” in Hattie’s absence.
When Hattie returns, the pair, though unhappy with each other, resign to continue the relationship.
The book explores Hattie’s character through her relationships with her 11 children.
Mathis’s said her favorite book characters are Floyd and Belle. Floyd, a traveling horn player and womanizer, is also grappling with his homosexuality, something he describes as one of his “breaches of willpower.” He does not come out of the closet with it, however, he wants to act normal to protect himself from scorn.
There was a special relationship Floyd shared with his mother, however. “Hattie was the only person in the world with whom Floyd was serene … He was so often sunk in a loud, internal confusion that threatened to overwhelm him.”
Mathis’s other favorite character, Bell, was too proud to seek medical help to treat her own tuberculosis and nearly dies before Hattie intervenes and has her taken to a hospital where she (Hattie) helps nurse her back to health.
We learn a lot about the love Hattie withheld from her children through Bell’s experience.
“She (Bell) had never been afraid of anyone the way she was afraid of her mother, she had never been so angry with anyone and never wanted anyone to love her as much as she wanted Hattie’s love. But Hattie was always so remote, like a receding shore as a ship moves farther out to sea.”
It is Hattie’s granddaughter, Sala, who ultimately helps Hattie feel a sense of redemption in her life. At age 71, Hattie must raise Sala because her mother, Alice, is mentally ill and unable to raise the child. It is during this period, in the 80s, that Hattie reflects on her failings with her children.
In a passage from the book: “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.”
Readers will also recognize the growth that Hattie and her husband experience through old age.
They begin to attend church where Hattie finds peace and solace. Her husband now tells her that he loves her because of his newfound belief in Christ.
During those times of reflection, Hattie also remembers her losses.
She’s decided that she is not too old to weather the sacrifice of raising Sala , to keep her close, not wanting to lose her as she had several of her other children.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a book that readers will not want to put down. And Mathis says she’s not done yet. She’s planning to write another novel. Mathis has also worked as a magazine writer in New York, a freelance writer and as a fact checker. She will be speaking at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival on March 20 through March 24.