The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A rich, beautiful, heart-wrenching debut novel spanning 60 years and a family of individuals struggling against odds and upbringing. It blew me away and left me wishing that Hattie had even more children so I could stay with them longer.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Hutchinson
ISBN: 978-0091944186

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Teenager Hattie Shepherd moves with her husband August, parents and siblings from the colour apartheid of the southern US to Philadelphia in search of a better life. Unfortunately this is 1920's America and so 'better life' is a mirage for Hattie. By the age of 15 she's pregnant and subsequently gives birth to twins Jubilee and Philadelphia, the first two of 11 children. As much joy as they bring, the twins are destined to provide a tragedy that will flavour Hattie's and August's outlook and relationship for decades. Each later Shepherd baby will develop with their own characteristics but each will also be tarnished by the past, irrespective of their attempts to escape it.

Poet Ayana Mathis wanted to write the biography of her family and the many others who trekked, like American versions of the biblical tribes of Israel, from the down trodden south to the northern promised lands. However, she changed her mind and fictionalised a family instead. This led to an endorsement from American chat-show host and literacy promoter Oprah Whinfrey which, in turn, ensured The Twelve Tribes of Hattie a US best seller spot. So, is it all hype? Nope; in this case Ms Whinfrey has backed a winner and the author has a debut novel to be proud of.

The content is unique but the style and language has been likened to Toni Morrison and reminds me of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. The story extends from the 1920s to the 1980s from the viewpoint of Hattie, August, most of their children and a grandchild. ('Most' because some of the children are babies at the time so not so eloquent. Therefore their chapters are used to fill in gaps about their parents.) Each person is just that – a separate, defined human being. This isn't a story populated by a dozen or more interchangeable cut-and-paste characters. We may only be with each briefly, but they leave an indelible virtual photograph in our imaginations like that of Floyd, the musician, struggling with more than his colour, or Franklin, the son looking back on his life from the Viet Nam war.

It's touching to the point of reducing me to a blubbing mass before page 14 (a record indeed) whilst being really clever. I dare anyone to read about nouveau riche daughter Alice and not switch opinions as our perceptions are deftly manipulated. Ayana also has a way of translating emotions onto paper. In one chapter she nails precisely what it's like to be the daughter of a schizophrenic as her words ooze with the subtleties of the lonely love and unrequited loyalty.

Some critics have commented on the lack of positive male role models. Even Six, the preacher, seems to turn from victim to predator before our eyes. However, I don't believe this is deliberate misandry as the women aren't exactly beacons of morality either. A cursory glance at Hattie's maternal skills will reveal that and as for Alice… These are people marked by their past and fighting for their present in whichever way their emotional (and financial) investment will permit. Indeed this isn't a happy-happy-joy-joy novel and yet it held rather than depressed me. I'd have loved more children as that would mean more chapters but was satisfied with the glimmer of optimism we're offered at the end.

Ayana Mathis wants this work to stand as a tribute to the 20th century Black American diaspora and so it does. However, it's an even greater tribute to the author herself as she enables us to share the legacy so vividly through her words.

If you've enjoyed this, then why not see if the buzz is correct about the similarities to Toni Morrison's writing style.

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Buy The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis at

Booklists.jpg The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2013.


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