The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) references Hattie's 11 children and grandchild that she later cares for as her own. From our first introduction to Hattie, we sense that her life is going to be filled with heartaches and difficult situations. We also sense her strength and intelligence, yet these qualities never seem to be enough to elevate Hattie. In Chapter One, Hattie suffers the loss of her her twin babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee, and this event haults Hattie's evolution. "She felt their deaths like a ripping in her body." (page 13) Her life is chronicled by the births of nine more children and little else.
Told through the eyes of Hattie and her tribe, this family saga dismantles in a series of short stories that weave together time. Human flaws and internal conflicts abound in her descendants, eagerly passed from Hattie herself, perhaps in an attempt to alleviate her own burdens by sharing the pain.
" Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman--perhaps she wasn't but there hadn't been time for sentiment when they were young. 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." (page 236)
Each chapter stands alone yet ties into the next, creating a portrait of a family struggling to survive in a changing America. The writing is exquisite. The character development is powerful with each strong enough to lead separate novels. In The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Mathis expertly guides the reader through the passage of time that defines Hattie the mother, the lover, the grandmother, and the woman. Her tribe will go forth and with them the hope for a better future.
This book is the current selection from the Oprah 2.0 Book Club. You can learn more and participate in online discussions at www.oprah.com.
About the author: Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is her first novel.