The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis is one of those books that seem destined to become a popular ‘book club’ choice, to be discussed by women sipping white wine on sofas and debating the past sins of American racism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – you don’t get to be a book club favourite without having something important to say – but it does mean that if you aren’t careful, when you are reading it you’ll find lots of worthy questions popping into your head. ‘How did attitudes to race change during the period of the 20th Century covered by the book?’ or ‘Why is Hattie’s approach to mothering so unloving’ and – the question at the heart of this book must surely be ‘ Why are all the characters so bloody miserable?’
Hattie was born in Georgia, hotbed of southern racism and headed north to Philadelphia with her feckless and unreliable husband, August, in search of a better future for herself and her future children. Nine babies follow since despite the animosity between Hattie and August, they just can’t keep their hands off each other when the lights go down. The book kicks off in 1925 as Hattie nurses her twin babies, little more than a child herself and ends in 1980 with Hattie a grandparent caring for one of her grandchildren. Each of the chapters tells us about one or more of her children and their lives. It would be marvellous if we could see some kind of progress in the lives of the family but regardless of the year, nobody’s ever having an easy time in Hattie’s family.
Her first babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee, get sick and die in the very first chapter but most of the other children are introduced to us as adults. There’s Floyd the musician, battling with the demons of a sexuality that neither he nor those around him are likely to find acceptable, showing us that there is something tougher than being black in the south and that’s being black and sexually confused in the south. Next we meet Hattie’s oddly named son, ‘Six’, who combines a precocious talent for healing and preaching with a lust for the ladies. Ruthie is Hattie’s baby by her lover, a man who seems briefly to give her a glimpse of a better life but disappoints her just like every other man. Ella is born many years later than her brothers and sisters and is promised by August to Hattie’s childless sister who has done well for herself but lacks what Hattie has in abundance – children. Alice has done well for herself, marrying into the family of a wealthy black doctor but she and her brother Billups have a strange relationship based on control dressed up as love and Alice is ultimately as miserable as everyone else. Perhaps Billups offers us the only glimpse of a child of Hattie who isn’t completely unhappy. Franklyn is sent to Vietnam to fight for his country whilst Bell is a lonely, sad woman, dying alone in her filthy apartment, estranged from all her family. Finally we meet Cassie, sick in body and in mind and no longer able to care for her daughter Sala, who passes into the care of Hattie and August, perhaps giving them an opportunity at last to atone for the mistakes they made with their own children.
Although this is presented as a novel, there’s little plot or progression through the book. In effect, these could be the stories of a handful of unhappy black people who had no connection to one another, since the only thread of continuity that runs through is Hattie and her husband August. These are all stories of disappointment, of lives lived in small and unhappy ways, of people from a large family who are all ultimately strangers to one another. They are siblings but they are each in their own way very alone. I yearned for someone – anyone – to bring some fire, passion and joy to this book but I looked in vain. The book is beautifully written – some chapters stronger than others, some not sticking in the mind for more time than they take to read – but it’s lacking any sense of redemption. You can’t help but feel sorry for these people but I’m reluctant to blame Hattie and August for the sadness of their children, even though I can’t help but feel that’s where I’m supposed to find my conclusions.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is Ayana Mathis’ first book. I hope she writes many more but I equally hope she can find some happiness and share it out amongst the characters of any books which follow.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Published by Hutchinson, January 2013
With thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.
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