In the 1920s, young Hattie is one of the many American blacks who will travel from the Southern states to begin new lives in the North. A couple of years after settling in Philadelphia, Hattie has married August and given birth to twins, whom she names Philadelphia and Jubilee in optimism for the years to come – but the children die as babies. She will go on to have many more children who survive, but this is the first sign of the difficulties Hattie and her descendants will face making their way in life throughout the twentieth century.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is structured as a series of episodes, each focusing on one or more of Hattie’s children at points in history ranging from 1925 to 1980, which together create a composite portrait of the family. The emotional scope of the novel is vast, as Ayana Mathis’s characters face desire, betrayal, racism, insanity, and more besides. Perhaps most central to the book are issues of living up to (or failing to meet) the expectations of others, and what binds (or may separate) the members of a family.
Mathis moves between many different viewpoints (third- and first-person) with fluency and ease. Her characters are always vivid, such as Six, whose violent outburst as a child becomes channelled into an unstoppable religious fervour (“The Word collected in his mouth like a pile of pebbles and pushed itself out through his lips”); and Bell, who couldn’t have foreseen herself living in squalor and wasting away from tuberculosis (“She’d taken such pleasure in saying no to [two marriage] proposals…Women who married men like that did nothing but shop for groceries and nearly die of boredom. But here I am dying anyway”).
And through it all is Hattie herself, from age 17 to age 71, who wants the best life for her family, but doesn’t always get it. It would be wrong to say that her determination never flags, or that she sacrifices herself entirely – Mathis’s portrait is too complex to sum up in that kind of way. But Hattie’s personality, and those of her children, fill the book to its very end.
Any Cop?: Absolutely. This is a superb novel of character and situation – and it’s only Ayana Mathis’s debut.