It is impossible to come away from Ayana Mathis's The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie without a pit in your stomach. That the trials and hardships of a black woman and her 11 children are still the lot of many within her demographic in 21st-century America deepens that pit.
Not too long after teenaged Hattie gets swept off her feet by her beau, August, sometime in the 1920s, the sweet life they imagined for each other is shattered time and again by harsh realities and August's failings as a father and husband. After Hattie's first children – a pair of twins – die, she becomes a cold, bitter woman, determined to toughen up her subsequent nine kids for a world that won't treat them kindly. Even so, her efforts would yield mostly bitter harvests.
Her children distance themselves from her as they grow up. Not knowing her love, Hattie's kids don't seem inclined to give any to their loved ones in turn. Floyd the musician, for instance, merely drifts from gig to gig without much of a plan in life. Alcoholic Franklin is almost a carbon copy of his father. Young Six tries to help others through faith but corruption rears its ugly head. Alice's constant need to keep her younger brother under her wing stems from insecurities born out of a dark time in their lives, even as the supposedly frail younger sibling finds the courage to be his own man.
The last couple of chapters, set in 1980 and possibly derived from Mathis's own life story, is about how Hattie struggles to protect her granddaughter (the "twelfth tribe") from a world that she still sees as harsh and unforgiving when the girl's possibly schizophrenic mother can't cope. And we end up resigned to Hattie's pain continuing until she breathes her last.
This not-very-big volume is mostly misery, disappointment and heartbreak. Snapshots of points in Hattie's and her children's lives contain just enough detail that, when put together, they seem to show how certain mindsets have clung tenaciously onto America's social fabric, right up to this day and age. That these mindsets appear to have been strengthened rather than weakened by a black man in the White House, seems to justify Hattie's bleak worldview.
The threads that link the lives of Hattie and her children together, however, seem non-existent or hard to trace, like the love – or rather, the general idea of the love – this woman is supposed to have for her kids. Were it not for Hattie, the chapters in this novel appear unrelated to one another.
That's no weakness, as readers can take a break whenever it gets them down. They'll have to at some point. The sun don't shine in these pages, no sir. The characters' pain is conveyed perhaps too well, prompting one to wonder: If Mathis penned something light-hearted, would it be even more enjoyable? Because make no mistake, this début novel is a good read despite the pain.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
The only bright spot is that some of Hattie's children eventually recognise the wisdom behind her stoicism and try it out for themselves during hard times, though it's unclear if they know they're referring to their mama's playbook.
Don't be put off by the "Oprah Book Club 2.0" endorsement. The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie is worth exploring for the powerful language, the emotions it stirs, and how it makes us think of familial ties in the face of adversity.