The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Dec 6, 2012 - Fiction - 256 pages
3 Reviews
The newest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection.
The arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction. 
A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family.

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.

This ebook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.

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great read

User Review  - sehctaw -

If I am still reading at one in the morning it means that I am loving the book. Thoroughly enjoyed the story. Captivated by the characters. Would love sequel highlighting other family members. Read full review

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Hattie’s story really begins in Georgia, when she is 15 and fleeing with her mother and sister. Her father’s blacksmith shop has been taken over by white men who have murdered him. They escape to Philadelphia where Hattie sees, for the first time, whites and blacks intermingling. It is there that she meets August and loses her head for one night, foretelling the rest of her life. She gives birth to twins named Philadelphia and Jubilee, names she believes are not part of the past, but part of the future. Both contract pneumonia in the days before penicillin and succumb to the disease.
For the next 56 years, until 1980, we walk through Hattie’s life through the lives of her progeny. Each of them seems to be born under some kind of a cloud or some failure they can’t overcome: racism, emotional and mental disorders, alcoholism, gambling, unfaithfulness are part and parcel of their daily lives. They must be subservient to a cruel class of whites who demand absolute obedience, and when successful, they in turn abuse their own servants. This atmosphere places a heavy burden upon all of them, sometimes too heavy to bear responsibly.
Hard as she tries, Hattie’s children fail to appreciate her efforts and see her as “the general”, lacking in tenderness, doing only what is necessary. Yet it is Hattie who holds this family together through all its trials, guides and comforts them in her own way, nurses them in sickness, provides them with food and shelter, managing the meager allowance she often is given by August.
The story tells a tale of racism, sexual abuse, poverty, faith, humiliation, illness, and adultery. Hattie’s courage and quiet guidance is often misunderstood for coldness. She too is prone to outbursts of anger and misguided ways as are many of her children. She too makes foolish decisions for which she repents. Her life is one of unappreciated sacrifice.
The reader is left to wonder if the travails visited upon the family are the results of their environment, the world they lived in or of their own personal failures and/or genetic inheritance. The lack of civil rights during most of her life, the lack of life saving drugs, the lack of equality, shaped all of them in different ways. They earned their livings in the only ways they could find acceptable and profitable. Some were more honorable than others. The humiliation they had to swallow as others swallow water was difficult to read about and difficult to put into the context of America. How in G-d’s name did such egregious behavior, against a particular group of people, continue to be acceptable for so long, in an enlightened world? How did they manage to submit to the mortification to which they were subjected? How did they conceal their shame and their fury? Some were unable and paid a heavy price.
It is a sad story about faith in the presence of hopelessness, conquest in the presence of enemies, bravery in the presence of danger on every front and incredibly foolish decisions often based on a lack of knowledge and/or self-control. In this book, as in many others today, the woman in the home seems to be the stronger influence, the more stabilizing factor, the one with the most responsibility for instilling values. The men often go far afield of expectations and often excuse their own stupid behavior, until there are dire consequences.

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About the author (2012)

Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is her first novel.

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