In The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, first-time author Ayana Mathis walks upon some of the richest thematic terrain the USA’s history can offer a novelist
Her protagonist, Hattie Shepherd, arrives in Philadelphia from Georgia in the mid-1920s, one of a legion of travellers in the great migration, that movement of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the promise and relative freedom of the North. The great migration gave the world the Harlem Renaissance and too many great American writers to list. It ended in the middle of the last century but has never lost its influence on the American imagination
Mathis is a graduate of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her work is certainly not lacking in ambition. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie falls into that growing tradition of books that hover somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories — an unintended effect, perhaps, of the workshop setting that so many writers pass through nowadays
The novel opens in 1925 with a glimpse of an all-too-temporary Eden. Two years before, Hattie and her mother and sisters fled their Georgia home after her father was murdered by white men. When Hattie stands for the first time on the streets of Philadelphia and sees black people walking freely on the sidewalk rather than stepping off it for whites to pass, she never wants to leave
By age 17, Hattie has married a young electrician named August Shepherd and is the doting mother of twins named Philadelphia and Jubilee. “The neighborhood rang with birdsong. The twittering lulled the twins to sleep and put Hattie in such high spirits that she giggled all the time. … the grass in Hattie and August’s tiny square of lawn was green as the first day of the world”
But that green day darkens with sickening speed. The twins, not yet a year old, die in their mother’s arms of pneumonia — a loss Mathis describes in spare but shattering detail — leaving their mother with a hole in her heart that never heals
At first she struggles with depression so deep that she can barely care for the first few children that quickly come along — there will be nine that live. Then she rebuilds herself into the family’s hard-working rock, a mother whose kids call her the General (behind her back) and endlessly calculate both how to dodge her strict discipline and win her perhaps impossible affection
Although Hattie is very much the book’s central character — its unsolvable enigma, its unattainable beloved — Mathis tells her story through her children. Each chapter bears the names of one or two of them and, in the space of a short story, plunges us into their very different lives
Each chapter also bears a date, moving forward from 1948 to 1980, but within them Mathis moves back and forth in time, filling in past and present. One chapter is named for daughter Ruthie, who is a baby at the time, born of Hattie’s second short-lived bout of happiness: an affair with a dashing man named Lawrence Bernard. For him, Hattie does the unthinkable — she walks out on August and all their children, taking only Ruthie. Running off with Lawrence is a paradise even briefer than the first one
As years pass, some of Hattie’s children seem to have found good lives for themselves, but not without searing losses of their own. Oldest son Floyd becomes a successful musician, but only by resolving to suppress his sexuality after a frightening night in a Georgia juke joint. Floyd has his pick of fans after every gig, but despite his promiscuous treatment of women, what really troubles Floyd is his attraction to other men. Twenty years before Stonewall, this young musician has no way to comprehend himself except in the tropes laid down by his family’s church — as an abomination, a Judas. Denying his affections, “Floyd smelled his cowardice; he was all rot inside”
Daughter Alice marries a doctor and uses her wealth to take care of her damaged brother Billups, or so we think until it becomes clear who is the damaged one. Son Six, who bears terrible scars from a childhood burning, tries to become a preacher, discovers he is not touched by God — and becomes a preacher anyway
Some of Hattie’s other children take more tortured paths; the most harrowing, perhaps, is her daughter Bell’s. As a teen, Bell was shocked to catch a glimpse of Hattie with Lawrence; when Bell meets him years later, she begins a breathtakingly cruel affair with him. We learn her story as she is near death from tuberculosis, relishing her atonement. But Hattie isn’t done with her
In the chapter named for Ella, Hattie’s last child, whom she gives up to be raised by her well-off sister, we get a heartbreaking sense of what lies beneath Hattie’s coldness. And in the last chapter, named for granddaughter Sala, we see how far her strength extends
Too many writers of literary fiction tend to stage intimate stories in the hermetically sealed worlds of their own clever imaginations, but Mathis never loses touch with the geography and the changing national culture through which her characters move. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is infused with African-Americans’ conflicted attitudes about the North and the South during the Great Migration
After fleeing Georgia with her widowed mother, young Hattie vows never to leave Philadelphia, but the past holds a tempting allure for many of these regional refugees
Fears about how they’ll be judged — by white people and fellow black residents — inform the attitudes and longings of these women for decades
“They were, most of them, perpetually donning and polishing their northern-city selves,” Mathis writes, “molting whatever little southern town they or their families had come from five or ten or twenty years before … or bragging about their families’ wide porches in whatever good Negro neighborhood they’d lived in, which was just a roundabout way of demanding that Philadelphia give them their due”
In the long family arc that Mathis describes, the painful life of one remarkably resilient woman is placed against the hopes and struggles of millions of African-Americans who held the USA to its promise
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