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How stoic and constant Hattie was, how seething and unfathomable. Bell’s sisters used to say that she had her mother’s temperament – secretive and quick-tempered. She had never been afraid of anyone the way she was afraid of her mother, she had never been so angry with anyone and never wanted anyone to love her as much as she wanted Hattie’s love.
Ayana Mathis sets the bar very high for novelists in 2013. With her debut, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, it is very likely that she has already written one of the best books you’re likely to read this year.
A kaleidoscopic portrait of the fierce and difficult Hattie Shepherd through the eyes of her children, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie does not feel like a debut novel. The quality of the writing, its quiet intensity, the certainty of the narrative voices speaks of a polish and talent that has been practicing for years.
Covering years from 1925 when she arrives in Philadelphia from Georgia to 1980, the first chapter of the novel reveals wound that drives Hattie to be so fierce with her children. At seventeen years old, “only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given,” Hattie quickly has to deal with August, her frequently roaming husband, and a houseful of children. She becomes almost the textbook definition of Tough Love, fierce, terrifying, single-minded in her determination that her children survive:
Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman- perhaps she wasn’t, but there hadn’t been time for sentiment when they were young. She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was used up in feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.
Each chapter of the novel presents a view of Hattie as seen through the eyes of one of her children. Much has been made about The Twelve Tribes of Hattie being a “Great Migration” story, because it is haunted by the south and set during the years when millions of African Americans traveled north in search of jobs and to escape discrimination. One son returns to the south to become a preacher, and a daughter is returned to the south to be raised by Hattie’s sister. Floyd, the musician of the family, also tries to embrace same-sex love in the south in a small town with a young man named Lafayette. Their chapter and dialogue (“I mean, I’m not a…I go with women.” “Folks like to think that about theyselves”) will no doubt bring a smile to True Blood fans. However, this is for the most part a series of interior dramas. There is little mention of the historical background, and, except for the chapter narrated by Hattie’s son Franklin, set in Vietnam in 1969, only a vague sense of changes happening in society at large.
Hattie’s boys appear to survive their mother better than the girls do, but all the children are shaped—or misshapen—in some way by her. Her uncompromising love extends to her grandchildren. She will do anything for them pulling them away from God, Death, everything. “She didn’t know how to tend to her children’s souls, but she fought to keep them alive and to keep herself alive.”
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship, Ayana Mathis is an author to watch. Her writing is so accomplished, her voice so strong and self-assured, it is hard to believe that this is a first novel. With The Twelve Tribes of Hattie she has created a near-perfect debut about an imperfect family. Readers of will be anxious and salivating for what she comes up with next.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
By Ayana Mathis
Hardcover, 9780385350280, 242 pp.