Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

hattie “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.”Goodreads

I have to admit that, against popular advice, I read a few reviews of this book before making a decision about reading it. Despite Oprah’s obvious endorsement, my fear was encountering another Deep End of The Ocean debacle – let’s just say O and I did not see eye to eye on that particular tome… The reviews I read weren’t that positive, but I bravely forged ahead and read it anyway — and I am so glad I did. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis is a powerfully written work, gripping me with its first words and not letting go until its last.

In the first chapter/vignette, Hattie Shepherd is a married, new mother at age seventeen, and is raising her twin babies with love and tenderness – until their deaths from pneumonia. This changes her forever, and makes a huge difference in how she parents her following nine children. The following nine chapter/vignettes are the stories of Hattie’s nine surviving children and one grandchild over a fifty-five year span of time, from 1925 to 1980.. Hattie is not central to each story, however, her presence is felt in each one and the strong hold she has on her children is evident throughout. While Hattie is not a necessarily a likeable character, I did like her – or at least I sympathized with her. Perhaps it was my initial introduction to her in the first chapter, when her love, passion, and dedication to her children is so evident. If you look closely, that same love and dedication comes through over the years in her other actions, however stilted or misguided they may seem.

I don’t know, folks… A lot of people seemed to focus on the negative aspects of this book, on the various hardships and tragic circumstances that befall Hattie and the Shepherd family. Yes, there was that. And, yet. And yet I also found there to be, deep within, a sense of growth, of renewal, and of hope. Enough to make me think that perhaps life didn’t beat old Hattie into submission after all, and that perhaps her children (or at least a few of them) are going to make it through as well. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has been firmly placed on my Favorites shelf. This is a reading experience you do not want to miss.

5 out of 5 stars.

Who I would recommend this book to: My dear friend Sue, who spent years helping young mothers such as Hattie overcome adversity and who has helped me to see the hope in hopeless situations on numerous occasions – I think she would recognize the hope that Mathis has woven into this book, as well.

Source: Lincoln City Libraries Digital Downloads

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