Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” opens with the now-famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In her first novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” Ayana Mathis delves deeply in the domestic despair of one African-American family to show that each member of an unhappy family is also unhappy in his or her own way.
“The Twelve Tribes of Hatti” was already receiving good early press when Oprah Winfrey announced it as her second selection in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Crowned with Oprah’s blessing, Mathis’ first book soared on best-seller lists.
The novel opens in Philadelphia in 1925, with Hattie Shepherd and her husband, August, as new parents of twins. Within the first chapter, we learn of Hattie’s move to this city two years earlier at the age of 15 with her mother and sisters after her father was killed in Georgia. The women are part of the Great Migration and typical of the millions of African-Americans who moved from the Jim Crow South to the urban North in search of work and a better quality of life. The life they discovered, however, too often included crowded or substandard housing, limited job opportunities, and frequently was not all they had hoped for.
Yet it is with an exultant heart that the new mother gives her twins uncommon names: Jubilee and Philadelphia. “Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.” When the babies die of pneumonia, due to impoverished living conditions and a lack of medicine, part of Hattie dies as well, leaving her unable or unwilling to risk vulnerability to that depth of love again. Even so, she gives birth to nine more children all the while enduring marriage to a philandering, profligate husband.
Hattie’s personal story sets the tone for the chapters that follow. The 11 children and one grandchild, who constitute the 12 tribes, are featured in separate chapters that reflect the particular brand of familial and personal heartbreak visited upon Hattie’s various offspring. The reasons for distress are numerous and potentially overwhelming, including repressed homosexuality, schizophrenia, infidelity, racism, a deforming childhood accident, and tuberculosis.
The book’s structure allows each chapter to be read as a complete short story. We learn about some aspect of each child’s individual story, outlook on life, and how they related (or failed to relate) to the most energetic force in their lives, Hattie. Given the number of children, it is not surprising that they are not fully developed as characters in the book. Neither is there any attempt to show the family as a whole unit functioning together. But, taken individually, the chapters are engrossing. The children’s personal predilections, life experiences, and the societal time in which they grew up affect their stories. One thing all of the children could agree on is the lack of tenderness they received from Hattie. They see rage, fierce determination, and sadness in her, but not the kindness or mother’s love they were seeking. Hattie’s own scarring life experiences leave her incapable of expressing affection for her children.
Despite rave reviews and Oprah’s praise, some readers will endure “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” as a depressing, persistent litany of misery through variations of character and circumstance. Others will be enriched by this distinct family history as an allegory of the plight and unflagging desire to belong and to be loved that is the perpetual saga of the disenfranchised.