The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis arrived with a great deal of literary street cred: it had been recommended by Oprah, who can still make or break books with nary a blog post. It came with a stunning recommendation from Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner. Comparisons are being made to inimitable Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.
Does Twelve Tribes of Hattie live up to these extraordinary claims? This book is an easy shoo-in for my top 13 for 2013, and is unlikely to be booted out of that list any time soon. While the Toni Morrison comparisons are not unfounded, I feel this book deserves more than being lumped in the ‘black female writer’ bracket and being treated as a progressive read by lily-white book clubs. This book, while touching on race, also deals with everything from family to gender to psychosis, while stopping by to discuss religion as well as music. There’s even a brush through midwifery and traditional healing. It is, quite surprisingly, more of a collection of short stories than it is a traditional novel. Through the twelve children of Hattie we discover twelve stories of twelve people, beginning with the heartbreaking departure of Philadelphia and Jubilee and the salvation of Sala.
Eponymous Hattie is triumphantly drawn, though her life is a wide collection of pain and sacrifice. Called The General by her children, she is a hard, tough, strong woman who bears the pain of losing her children in every manner, who has a husband who is “the greatest mistake of her life”, who somehow manages to feed and clothe and raise a veritable horde of children, each of which grows into and inherits their share of trouble. Each chapter is a look through a prism at Hattie, and her impact on the lives of her children. She is never far from the foreground, and even if she doesn’t appear in the action, she appears in every chapter. Mathis has drawn a remarkably complex woman that one struggles to like or hate, though her strength is easy enough to love.
The novel asks: how do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel? Through Hattie the reader explores the burdens of parenting, of growing up in the shadow of a mother’s pain and how even the very best intentions can go horribly awry. Add to this the difficulties of racial tensions and outright hatred in America between 1925 – 1980, of being black and gay, of being black and ill, and the novel is filled with complicated troubles and unsentimental discussion. This isn’t a misery memoir but it is filled with great sadness, as it is also lightened by moments of happiness and growth.
Pick this up because you will weep for Hattie, and all she endures for so little thanks. For all she loses, and for all that her children suffer, and for the outstanding depth and maturity of this debut author’s prose.