Tuesday, December 11, 2012

book review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The backstory: The debut novel of Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was one of the spring 2013 releases I was most excited about. When Oprah picked it as her second Book Club 2.0 read and pushed up the book's release date, I moved it to the top of my queue.

The basics: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the life story of Hattie Shepherd. It spans from 1925 to 1980.When she fifteen, Hattie, her mother and sister moved from Georgia to Philadelphia. There she married soon after and gave birth to twins: the first of many, many children.

My thoughts: The first chapter of this novel is devastating and heart-wrenching and still somehow hopeful. Both of Hattie's twins are sick with pneumonia in the middle of the night. Mathis shifts from the current minutes to Hattie's memories beautifully. In the second chapter, however, the action shifts, both in time and narrator. Suddenly it's 1948, and Hattie's son Floyd is a musician traveling through the South. My understanding of this novel shifted, and I expected to read a chapter from the point of view of each of Hattie's children, thus coming to understand her as a mother and as a woman. In time, though, Mathis shifts back to Hattie.

One consequence of this narrative structure was it's disjointedness. I never truly got a feel for this novel as I was reading it, but upon further reflection, particularly of the stunning final chapter, I did. At times it felt like a collection of linked stories. While Hattie was a part of all of them, in each story the reader glimpsed into the life of one of her children, most of whom were only previously mentioned in passing. While Hattie weaved through all of the stories, her children did not.

While this novel is the story of Hattie's life, it's also a commentary on the Great Migration:
"He thought of the South as a single undifferentiated mass of states where the people talked too slow, like August, and left because of the whites, only to spend the rest of their lives being nostalgic for the most banal and backwoods things: paper shell pecans, sweet gum trees, gigantic peaches."
There's also an extreme sadness to this novel. As I read about more and more of Hattie's children, I couldn't help but think, "him too?" or "her too?" Can no one in this family catch a break in life? This darkness is crucial to Hattie and her views on life and religion:
"Hattie believed in God's might, but she didn't believe in his interventions. At best, he was indifferent. God wasn't any of her business, and she wasn't any of his. In church on Sundays she looked around the sanctuary and wondered if anyone else felt the way she did, if anyone else was there because they believed in the ritual and the hymn singing and good preaching more than they believed in a responsive, sympathetic God."
Favorite passage: "It seemed to him that every time he made one choice in his life, he said no to another. All of those things he could not do or be were huddled inside of him; they might spring up at any moment, and he would be hobbled with regret."

The verdict: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a difficult novel in many ways. As a novel of the Great Migration, it is hinged on a hope we know will fail, and taking the journey of a generation's disappointment is depressing. Still, Mathis is a bold and lyrical writer. The first and last chapters will stay with me for quite some time.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: December 6, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Twelve Tribes of Hattie from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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10 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to read this one as well, and plan to my week off between Christmas and new Years. Terrific review.

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    1. Diane, I hope you enjoy it. I'll look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

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  2. This does sound different, and though it is sad, there are times when I want to read more dour books, and times when I become more receptive and reflective because of them. It sounds like this would be one of those for me. I will be adding this to my list, and thank you for the outstanding review!

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    1. Zibilee, I'll look forward to your thoughts on this one! I definitely read it in smaller bursts because of the sadness so many characters experienced.

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  3. I HATE disjointed reads. Also, I won't hesitate to admit that I get irritated with Oprah's picks.

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    1. Then you best stay away from this one:-)

      There were things I really liked about it, but so far I've been enjoying reading about it more than I enjoyed the novel. In interviews, I adore the author, but hearing more about how this novel came to be in this interview makes sense why I had the problems I did with it. Still, I'm curious what she'll do next, and I'll definitely be reading it.

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  4. Wow, this one sounds like a good read! I may have to read it and join in on oprah's discussion, lol. I love the quotes you included.

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    1. Jenny, I'd love to see what you think of it!

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  5. I saw this in a bookstore in Hawaii last week, and my first thought was "It sounds so bleak!" Not really what I was looking for while in Hawaii, but I might end up read it when I'm not on vacation.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!