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
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