The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The Twelve Tribes of HattieThere is a lot of misery in this story.  Where sorrow begins in Hattie’s young life, it continues on with her offspring.  The book is broken up into chapters that look into the lives of Hattie’s twelve children.   It covers the time span from 1925 to present and even though it is a novel, each chapter reads like a short story. Despite the sadness, I still liked the book but I was expecting something different.  I couldn’t say that it was one of my favorite reads, however, there were some parts I admired.
In particular, I enjoyed the moments whenever Hattie was mentioned and how she is viewed as the years go by (whether through her own eyes or through her children’s points of view).  What made me rather unsatisfied were the lives of all her sons and daughters.  We don’t get to know everything about all of them and we are left hanging to wonder what their fates are.
Basically we are introduced to Hattie as a very young mother who is struggling to care for her sick babies, while her husband (August) is out trying to earn an honest dollar—but he can’t seem to hold onto his money long enough to bring it home to the family. Eventually, we learn that their marriage is more carnal than anything else because although Hattie knows that August spends the money on booze and other women, she can’t keep her hands off him at night.  There is a moment when she thinks she could leave August and start a new life with someone else, but she is sadly dissatisfied when she finds out that her new affair is just as disappointing.
The novel focuses on unhappy marriages, grief, depression, racial issues and the estrangement between a mother and her children.  There are instances of hope and reconciliation but in the end, you are still not sure what to think of Hattie as a maternal person.  Granted, nothing can prepare a person to accept their child’s death—in fact, Hattie can almost be excused for the way she behaves with the rest of her nine children afterwards but something leaves me to feel that her life could have been more fulfilling if she took her grief and turned it into unconditional love for the rest of her kids.  Maybe her children would also have had better lives if she focused her attention on them, instead of dwelling on her past and worrying about her own contentment.
There is definitely a lot to discuss in terms of book club material because there is a lot of “meat”.  This is Mathis’ first novel.  What are your thoughts about the story and would you read another book by her?

If you are a member of the library, we have this title currently in Hard copy (F M4312t), as an ebook and as a CD audiobook.  This may or may not change in the future.  Please check the catalog frequently for an update of formats.

To read reviews on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, please click on the links below.
From The New York Times:

From The Guardian:

For information on Ayana Mathis, click below:

Discussion Questions
Here are a few questions to think about after reading the book.

-Does August change throughout the course of the novel? Do you feel differently about him at the novel’s end than at the beginning?
-Discuss the use of point of view in the chapter “Alice and Billups.” Whose point of view did you initially trust in this chapter? How does this change by the chapter’s end?

For more questions, please go to the LitLover’s website:

Interesting Tidbit
When Hattie said that penicillin could have saved her first two babies from pneumonia, it was an afterthought that occurred to her when she thinks of how the medicine would have helped her twins survive, if it was found out sooner.  Indeed, penicillin was first discovered by Alexander Flemming in 1928 (only two years after Philadelphia and Jubilee die) but it was only introduced to the public in 1941.  For more information on the history of penicillin, click on the following link:

This book reminded me of …
The very first title that came to my mind when I read Mathis’ work was Olive Senior’s Dancing Lessons.  In fact, the tone and theme almost mirror each other.  I will be honest and say that I actually enjoyed Senior’s book a little more but they both deal with black women struggling in unhappy relationships and becoming estranged from their children.  Of course, there is a part or two that reminded me of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  There are those moments where we clearly see the racial prejudices and how some of the white people in a community treat the black citizens as though they were unequal.  Yet even smaller portions of the book made me think of two other novels.  The chapter that explains how Hattie deals with giving her daughter, Ella to her sister, revisits that same feeling of a desperate and helpless parent—just as in M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.  Finally, Web of Angels, by Lilian Nattel features characters with multiple personalities and I thought of this when one of Hattie’s daughters (Cassie) also has a similar condition.

Favorite quote from book:
“The Negroes and whites in the town knew one another.  For all of the shucking and ducking, they greeted each other frequently, often by name.  There was something almost intimate in their knowledge of one another, and it was this intimacy that disturbed Six most.  These people had probably known each other all their lives, and still one had the power to demand that the other step into the gutter, and that other was cowed enough to do it.” (p. 58)

Most painful moment in the story:
It starts almost right at the beginning.  The description of Hattie’s little ones struggling for breath—for life and the realization that their time in their mother’s arms is short.  Hattie can only look on and cry as her first-born babies die in her embrace. (p. 13)

Next month’s title:
City of Women by David R. Gillham

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4 Responses to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

  1. Mary Burns says:

    After reading your review, it does not sound tempting. Interesting historical period, though. So many blacks moved north from the mid-teens that there was a great deal of tension between the races, and major race riots in 1919.

    • Melissa says:

      I know, that’s why I was interested in reading it. I am fascinated by the civil rights stuff and still cannot believe that this actually happened. As I mentioned before, the book was interesting but I couldn’t say that I absolutely loved it.

  2. Melinda says:

    I’ve seen a few good reviews on this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

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