The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis’s debut novel, gains its narrative momentum with the arrival of children: for Hattie Shepherd, first come the twins, Jubilee and Philadelphia, who then die of pneumonia when they are just a few months old. Their deaths are followed by the births of nine more children, each of whom are afforded a chapter, and for each of whom Hattie desperately tries to provide while her husband, August, strays farther and farther from home. As so often happens, the children grow to resent the parent who is there rather than the parent who is not. And though Hattie—buried under her grief, struggling to feed her surviving children, lonely, tired, and imperfect in the way so many humans are who survive under the weight of poverty—is often doing her best, the children’s resentment makes sense. They needed Hattie’s love and tenderness, but in her fight to keep them clothed and fed, she often didn’t have that to give. Like the title of the book suggests in its linkage to the Biblical tribes of Israel, the characters in this novel are often lost and often wandering; although the Great Migration is not at the center of the novel, the novel is written in its shadow. It is what pushes Hattie’s family north and puts her in the path of August Shepherd.
As a single parent of four/three I can relate (one died of suicide). But my grandma (a jew from Odessa, forced to leave for America in the early 1900s) went through precisely this. She was Hattie, and lived a Hattie life. The good news is, all worked out well in her case. All of her children survived and thrived through that migration. I can't say the same for my own.
I am excited about reading The Unsettled. Thanks for the recommendation.
Oh! Will read on my longhaul flight this weekend
I just finished reading… listening to this and the 12 Tribes of Hattie. I can’t say I’m sorry for having read both books, but I will share how absolutely dismal and tragic they were. I know not everyone is concerned with writing about Black Joy, but damn. Our lives aren’t one trauma after another and we, generally speaking, create joyful moments to keep us strengthened when trauma or change does come.
Great writing and storytelling. Characters are memorable but also interchangeable… is that a thing?
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