Ayana Mathis: Twelve Tribes of Hattie Review
“I had this idea that to be a good writer you wrote these pretty sentences [. . .] The biggest thing I learned at [Iowa Writer’s Workshop] was that being a good writer has everything to do with telling a truth about what it means to be a human being.” – Ayana Mathis
Their Summary: 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.
Thoughts on the Book: It’s difficult to consider my thoughts on Twelve Tribes of Hattie (TToH). After Gone Girl, it was a quick and easy read. A definite page-turnger and all the other cliche things people say about books they enjoyed. But if it hasn’t been made clear to you already, TToH is not necessarily a novel, but more like a collection of short stories mostly told by Hattie’s offspring. Mathis even mentions in interviews that this is how the novel eventually came into being, someone pointed out to her that the stories were somehow interlinked. While these stories could possibly stand alone, the thing that ties them together is Hattie’s overarching presence. Each child has a different memory, experience with, or feeling toward their mother that they share if only briefly. Yes, these are stories of family, but TToH also presents the idea of the desire to be alone enough to deal with your own demons. Homosexuality, prescription drug abuse, molestation, adultery, infant mortality, mental illness, and struggles with divinity hardly covers all the topics touched upon in the stories that make this book. Each character gets their 3o-page or less talk time and then it’s the next brother/sister’s turn—and you’d be surprised how quickly you can connect with these characters. When their time is up, it’s hard to move on without wondering about or wanting more from them. But once their spotlight is turned off, that’s that, and there might be either a subtle or just no further mention. Hattie and August Shepard’s eleven children and one grandchild make up the twelve tribes of Hattie, and it’s Hattie that you expect to make an appearance in every chapter. What did she do or say that impacted this particular child’s life? It’s this question alone that drove me to not only finish this novel quickly, but to sit and consider thoughts about stories and feelings I have for my own mother and how her life experiences might have impacted decisions she made for herself and her children. I didn’t love or hate this book, but I’m glad to say I read it. It was certainly worth the time.
Excerpt: Hattie took a deep breath. “When I was a little girl, my father took us to see some of his people near Savannah,” she sad. “We went to a little bitty strip of rocky beach they had for Negroes. Mama wouldn’t let us swim, but she went off to do something, and I lifted up my skirt and ran into the water.”
Hattie cupped Ruthie’s dimpled knee with her palm.
“My cousin Coleman came up behind me and splashed water all over my dress. He knew how to swim, so he went off doing tricks. He floated on his back and spit the water straight up like a fountain, and he dove down so all I could see were his legs poking out of the water like little brown sticks. Then he was floating with his arms out to his sides and his head bobbing just above the surface. I was so delighted! It was like he was pressing on the water to heave himself up and then he’d disappear again. He kept doing that and it was so funny, but then he went under and didn’t come up anymore. I stood in the shallow part waiting for him to pop up and make crab claws at me, but he never did. All of a sudden everybody was screaming and running. I looked back at the shore, and Mama was holding Coleman’s mother so she wouldn’t go in after him. I came out and stood on the beach. A while later a man came out of the water carrying Coleman, and I knew he was drowned.”
“Drowning doesn’t look how you think it would. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
Mathis on intentions for the novel: I set out to write a novel about an in-between generation — from the Great Migration to civil rights — and people suffering from a kind of mother-want and grappling with their own demons and psychology [. . .] I also set out to write a novel about family, but being alone. (Read more . . . )
Oprah is set to premiere an interview with Ayana Mathis sometime in February. I look forward to hearing Mathis shed more light on her novel, especially since it appears as though other interviews have been limited–which seems strange for such an assumedly popular book.
Happy reading, y’all.