The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Published by Knopf
Unsolicited review copy provided by the publisher
From the publisher:
In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is more a series of linked short stories than a novel, and while I don’t experience books like this too often, I almost always enjoy them when I do. This book was no different – I enjoyed it tremendously and the format of linked short stories was a fantastic way to tell the story of Hattie’s life through her children.
Even though the book is ostensibly about Hattie’s children, it turns out that their stories just serve as a vehicle for the reader to get to know this family overall, and to get to know Hattie better and more clearly as each story goes on. The book begins with Hattie losing her firstborn twins, at a time when she is very young, poor, and married to a man she hardly knows. This loss absolutely rocked Hattie to her core, and although she had nine more children, the loss of those twins was something she felt deep in her soul every minute of every day for her entire life.
Hattie broke my heart because after the loss of her twins, she wasn’t able to love the rest of her kids in the same way. It was almost like she wanted to show them that love and affection that she knew they deserved, but she kept them at arm’s length – for fear they’d leave her too, or to teach them the harsh ways of the world, I’m not really sure – and every one of the children suffered in some way because of her inability to give them what they craved from her.
Mathis is an excellent story-teller, and although she tells the story of this family in a nonlinear fashion, the format really worked for me. The reader gets a fully realized picture of this entire family by the time the book is through, and it became kind of a game for me to make connections between characters as the chapters went on – figuring out the birth order, who got along with which of their siblings, who was still living at home when certain events took place, things like that. The writing is effective, and while Mathis doesn’t use flowery language, her prose is very beautiful at times.
I really enjoyed The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. While it’s on the slim side, the connected short stories really worked for me and I felt deeply for the main character and her children. I connected with them in a way that was unexpected, given the nonlinear format of the book. Definitely give it a try if you like unconventional story-telling, fantastic characters, and an emotional story.