Ayana Mathis’s poignant debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is set against the backdrop of the Great Migration during the 1920s, when African Americans began moving in large numbers from the southern United States to the North. The reasons behind the Great Migration of African Americans to the North were twofold: to escape the racial terror of the Jim Crow South and to pursue the supposed better opportunities in the North.
The titular fifteen-year-old Hattie moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in 1923 with her family. Soon thereafter, young Hattie marries a man named August and gives birth to twins. Hattie then loses her newborns in 1925 when she is just seventeen years of age. Hattie’s tragic loss sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Following the death of her newborn twins, Hattie gives birth to nine more children, but finds neither the time nor the emotional wherewithal to outwardly express love for them. Hattie feels that it is more prudent to withhold her love so as to prepare her children for a world that will not love them.
The tragic cycle of life continues as Hattie’s children go on to suffer tragedies and hardships of their own, at least in part due to the emotional absence of their mother and the sometimes physical absence of their father. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie prompts us to think about the ways in which our parents affect who we become.
The novel also asks us to consider the effects of the Great Migration on African Americans and the ways in which the promise of a better life in the North became for many, to borrow a phrase from Langston Hughes, a “dream deferred.” For Hattie, the promise of a free and more prosperous North seems to die along with her twins Philadelphia and Jubilee. Hattie struggles with an unfaithful and disappointing husband and finds herself and her family in dire financial straits.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is organized unlike any novel I have read prior in that each chapter focuses on one or more of Hattie’s children (the last chapter focuses on a grandchild), at different points in their lives. Each chapter could stand alone as its own short story and only occasionally will characters reappear in later chapters.
I enjoyed the uniqueness of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; the various “stories” kept my interest. Admittedly, I found myself wanting to know more about certain characters in the book after their chapters had ended; and I was left questioning what happens to Hattie’s last child Ella after Hattie makes a heart-breaking decision regarding her future.
Hattie’s children include Floyd, a traveling musician with a “wild” lifestyle and a burdensome secret. Six is an angry young man who reluctantly embarks on a preaching tour of sorts after a traumatic childhood accident seems to leave him with some divine gifts. Bell, resentful of her mother’s ways, enacts revenge against Hattie that will leave you shaking your head.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is an important book that explores race, class, gender, sexuality, war, religion, mental illness, addiction, disability, and more. Although full of heaviness and heartbreak, there are moments of hope, humor, and levity that help to break up some of the harder stuff. All in all, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a satisfying read. I look forward to reading more works from the promising Ayana Mathis.
Check the WRL Catalog for The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is also available as a Gab Bag