‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is a stunning portrait of a gnarled family tree. Tattered moss hangs off every limb, allowing nothing to nest there.
Ayana Mathis has entwined all the branches into a harrowing debut novel that digs deep into the soul of a black family uprooted at every turn by realities too harsh to bear.
It begins in 1925, at the midst of the Great Migration in which southern blacks moved north in search of a New Jerusalem. For Hattie Shepherd, that Promised Land was Philadelphia two years earlier, where she, her mother and sisters took refuge after two white men killed her father in Georgia.
Hattie was 15 and terrified. Two years later, she is fighting to save her sick twin babies with home remedies, too poor to buy the medicine that promises a cure. Their death sucks all the life out of her. Hattie is old too soon, all of her promise chipped away with nine more births springing from a destructive marriage.
With each chapter, we meet her 11 children and one grandchild, each fighting for their lives through the murky depths of poverty, prejudice and shattered promises inherent from the womb. All seek approval from their fierce and hollow matriarch.
“Hattie was like a lake of smooth, silvered ice, under which nothing could be seen or known. When she was angry, the ice creaked and groaned; it threatened to crack and pull them all under …”
Each character is drawn so vividly, so completely that we breathe what they breathe, feel what they feel, see what they see and gasp as their lives unfold.
Their lives are bleak, but this book is not. It is enthralling from beginning to end, gingerly ingrained with slivers of hope that let a dusty light filter through the leaves.