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Originally published Friday, February 1, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie’: the scars of a mother’s battles

Ayana Mathis’ new novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” an Oprah Book Club 2.0. pick, plunges the reader into a remarkable family saga. Mathis appears Feb. 1 at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Ayana Mathis

The author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday Feb. 1 at the Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle (www.naamnw.org); free, co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

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Once tragedy shatters her first experience of motherhood, tough love is all Hattie Shepherd has to give her growing brood.

Affection? Tenderness? Sympathy? Little of that flows from Hattie, in the cramped, inner-city Philadelphia household where she, her good-natured but irresponsible husband, August, and their many children just barely scrape by — emotionally and financially.

In “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” (Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95), one is plunged into their remarkable family saga, which continually moves, enlightens and surprises the reader.

This superb first novel by Ayana Mathis (recently chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her Oprah Book Club 2.0) grips you, starting with the mesmerizing opening chapter.

It is 1925, and 16-year old mother Hattie fights a daunting battle to keep her twin infants alive during their bout of pneumonia. As the babies’ struggle for breath is vividly evoked, so in retrospect is Hattie’s hopeful exodus from the Deep South to the Northeast, as part of a historic and wrenching African-American Diaspora.

Mathis succeeds in making Hattie a complex, unique individual, as well as a symbol of powerful cultural, religious and psychological forces that impacted several African-American generations. In chapters that proceed from the 1920s up to 1980, the author inhabits the psyches of numerous characters with vibrant dexterity.

Each chapter, similar to interlinked short stories, is conveyed from the perspective of Hattie or one of her relations. And in poetic but diamond-sharp prose (Mathis names Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison as influences), the narrative blazes fearlessly into the darkness of divided spirits and hungry hearts.

It’s no wonder that under the hardened gaze of their mother, and in the crosswinds of nostalgia and hatred for their Southern roots, Hattie’s offspring have such difficulty loving, and finding their own places in the world.

While in the rural South, Hattie’s touring jazz musician son Floyd is confronted with violent homophobic bigotry, and with ecstatic sexual yearnings he’s long suppressed.

For Floyd’s troubled adolescent brother Six, the rural South is also a place of reckoning. Sent off with a traveling minister after severely beating a schoolmate, Six discovers in rural tent meetings an unexpected talent for preaching. He also learns “there wasn’t anything purely good or holy. Maybe good was only established indirectly and through unlikely channels.”

More pathetic is Hattie’s beautiful, anxious daughter Alice, who weds a prosperous black Southern doctor but can’t sustain her role as his trophy wife.

Though Hattie’s bitterness borne of loss has a toxic effect on her children, she is also their refuge and rescuer when need be — a paradoxical but not unfamiliar role for mothers.

Hattie is no monolith. Mathis keeps revealing more facets of her persona. In one heart-rending instance, she faces a “Sophie’s Choice” dilemma of whether to give up one child to save her others. In another keenly poignant chapter Hattie seizes, then surrenders, the adult love long-absent from her life.

Only one section of the novel, devoted to a son gutting out combat duty in the Vietnam War, seems rather detached from the family bloodline.

But “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is altogether stunningly good. It is a clear-eyed but compassionate family portrait, revelatory up to the very last page.

Misha Berson is the theater critic for The Seattle Times.

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