Hattie Shepherd was just fifteen years old when she left Georgia and the Jim Crow South for a new life in Philadelphia. Once there, she marries August, a man who stands in the way of the better life she had hoped for. Over the years Hattie births eleven children, all brought into the world with high hopes. Through her eleven children and one grandchild, Hattie's twelve tribes, we learn the story of a woman of incredible strength with more than her fair share of heartbreak, a woman who just wanted better for her children than she had.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the incredible debut novel by Ayana Mathis. It puts a human face to the historical narrative of the Great Migration, a time when Black Americans in the South were moving in large numbers to the North, in search of jobs and the release of the Jim Crow era. That face is the matriarch of a family, who dreamed of a better life but was never able to find it.
Hattie's children, all born in this land of promise, struggle to survival. Her first children, a set of twins born when she was just 17, contract pneumonia in their early lives and succumb. This tragedy sets Hattie on a path full of heartache and pain, one that her children view as detachment from them and takes them down their own difficult paths. Floyd is a musician who loves women but also enjoys the company of men, something that is detested in the South where he has fled. Alice and Billups share a secret from their childhood that over the years Alice is unable to cope with. Cassie struggles with a mental illness that tears her away from her daughter Sala, who is left to be raised by Hattie. Ruthie is born to a man who is not Hattie's husband and may be the one that tears Hattie away from her family.
These stories and the others are told in different years, at different points of their lives. Each child's story is told in one chapter and through the eyes of all the children we come to see who Hattie is. I thought this was a fantastic way of writing and a fresh way to tell the story. Each child's story gives us a little bit more of Hattie and builds into what is a truly heartbreaking life. Readers will grieve for Hattie, the dream she never attained and will ache with the pain life keeps throwing her way.
This book hit me hard personally. In Hattie, I saw my mother in law, a woman who sacrificed her health, relationships and at times happiness to provide a better life for her eight children. She succeeded in giving that to her children but never fully found that success for herself. These are stories that need to be shared, that need to be known to give strength to the women who daily fight for a better life for their families.
You've probably already heard of this book as its selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0 catapulted it into the world overnight. If you haven't already picked it up, I recommend it. This will definitely be one of the books that everyone will be talking about in 2013.