Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

By Ayana Mathis

When Oprah Winfrey anoints a book as her newest Book Club pick—even on the lacking-in-national-syndication-TV-show version—people take notice. It happened last summer with Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which spent weeks on the bestseller lists after being stamped with the Oprah seal of approval. And it will certainly happen again with Ayana Mathis’s debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, a series of family portraits that ultimately revolve around the fortunes of one forceful woman, Hattie Shepherd.

When we first meet Hattie, it’s 1925, and she’s new to motherhood and to Philadelphia, having left Georgia as part of an early wave of the Great Migration. Over the next 55 years, even when she’d “had enough of blood and milk and birthing,” she will raise nine more children, see them through waves of joy but mostly calamity, and bear witness to the great changes wrought by the civil rights movement—even though most won’t directly affect her. Hattie will endure tough times with an inner resilience she can rely on, largely because she has no choice.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie works wonderfully as a family drama, shifting from perspective to perspective—each “tribe” belongs to a different Shepherd voice—to show how Hattie’s children disappoint her. All of them, from Floyd, a wayward, wandering musician, to Bell, engaged in mutinous rebellion against her mother, fail to achieve what they believe to be their heart’s desire. But Mathis’s real accomplishment is her portrayal of larger American concerns: struggles with poverty, racism, sexism, religion and living a worthwhile life. There are no easy solutions, but in Mathis’s expert hands, the Great Migration comes alive as a living, breathing journey.

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