Summary and book reviews of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2013, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2013, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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Book Summary

A debut of extraordinary distinction: through the trials of one unforgettable family, Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration, a story of love and bitterness and the promise of a new America.

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented.  Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave.  She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother's monumental courage and the journey of a nation.

Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis's The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last - glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream, Mathis's first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction. 

Ruthie
1951

Lawrence had just given the last of his money to the numbers man when Hattie called him from a public telephone a few blocks from her house on Wayne Street. Her voice was just audible over the street traffic and the baby's high wail. "It's Hattie," she said, as though he would not recognize her voice. And then, "Ruthie and I left home." Lawrence thought for a moment that she meant she had a free hour unexpectedly, and he might come and meet them at the park where they usually saw each other.
 
"No," she'd said. "I packed my things. We can't . . . we're not going back."
 
They met an hour later at a diner on Germantown Avenue. The lunch rush was over, and Hattie was the lone customer. She sat with Ruthie propped in her lap, a menu closed on the table in front of her. Hattie did not look up as Lawrence approached. He had the impression that she'd seen him walk in and had turned her head so as not to appear to be looking for him. A cloth ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Hattie is, by any measure, a complicated, difficult woman. Did you love her, hate her, find it difficult to have sympathy for her? Is she a good mother? Why or why not?

  2. Why do you suppose the author chose to have Philadelphia and Jubilee die in the novel's first chapter? The novel moves backward and forward in time. What function is served by showing us this loss at the outset? How does this serve the novel and inform our understanding of Hattie?

  3. "In Georgia the preacher had called the North a New Jerusalem. The congregation said he was a traitor to the cause of the southern Negro. He was gone the next day on a train for Chicago. Others, too, were going, disappearing from their shops and their fields. All of those souls, ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Ayana Mathis's debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a stunning, penetrating portrait of a woman through the eyes of her children. Devotion and its intersection with love is one of the central ruminations of the novel. The narrative structure of the novel is intriguing, and somewhat like a puzzle. For example, although Hattie is the titular character, she is rarely allowed the opportunity to provide her own perspective. The effect is powerful and subtle. Each chapter provides information that creates a complete picture of a proud, intelligent, and ultimately, trapped woman. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie establishes Ayana Mathis as a gifted writer, one who will be watched with excitement. Fans of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin will find another favorite in this powerful new talent.   (Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Remarkable…Mathis weaves this story with confidence, proving herself a gifted and powerful writer.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Cutting, emotional…pure heartbreak…though Mathis has inherited some of Toni Morrison's poetic intonation, her own prose is appealingly earthbound and plainspoken, and the book's structure is ingenious…an excellent debut.

Booklist

Starred Review. Mathis writes with blazing insight into the complexities of sexuality, marriage, family relationships, backbone, fraudulence, and racism in a molten novel of lives racked with suffering yet suffused with beauty.

Author Blurb Marilynne Robinson
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a vibrant and compassionate portrait of a family hardened and scattered by circumstance and yet deeply a family. Its language is elegant in its purity and rigor. The characters are full of life, mingled thing that it is, and dignified by the writer's judicious tenderness towards them. This first novel is a work of rare maturity.

Author Blurb Paul Harding
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is beautiful and necessary from the very first sentence. The human lives it renders are on every page lowdown and glorious, fallen and redeemed, and all at the same time. They would be too heartbreaking to follow, in fact, were they not observed in such a generous and artful spirit of hope, in a spirit of mercy, in the spirit of love. Ayana Mathis has written a treasure of a novel.

Reader Reviews

Diane S.

Twelve Tribes
The book opens with a heart rendering tragedy which quickly captures the reader's interest. The great migration, the early 1900's and a mother with her three daughters move to Philadelphia to escape the Jim Crow south. Things do not work out as ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Great Migration

The Great Migration describes a large-scale movement of African-Americans out of the South between 1910 and 1970. Hattie, moving from Georgia to Philadelphia, would have no doubt agreed with Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson's assessment of the Great Migration as "six million black Southerners moving out of the terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest."

African Americans began to leave the South shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but in small numbers. By the turn of the 20th century, though, segregation, lynchings, and few employment opportunities in the South, forced many blacks to seek their fortunes elsewhere. So many left during this period, in fact, that African-American ...

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