One of the things I share with my mother-in-law (other than loving her son and grandsons) is a love of reading. Many times we have bonded over book titles. So, when I felt a book underneath the wrapping paper at Christmas, I was pretty confident she would choose a winner. I was pleased to see a title, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, which I had not yet read.
Once again, my mother in law had produced a winner.
The book opens rather dramatically with 10 month-old twins suffering with pneumonia in 1925. We are immediately thrust into Hattie’s world, its joys and its tragic misfortunes. Thereafter, each chapter is told from the perspective of one of Hattie’s children, or in a couple powerful instances, Hattie’s voice about one of her children or grandchildren.
In some ways, these glimpses into each child’s stories give this book the feel of excellent short stories, but given Hattie’s reoccurring role in each narrative, Twelve Tribes holds together as a full novel. Through these interconnected pieces, we trace not just Hattie’s life, but can look at African American history, primarily urban, in the 20th century.
His pain was his most precious and secret possession, and Six held on to it as fiercely as a jewel robbed from a corpse.”
In a brave move, Ayana Mathis doesn’t provide any easy heroes in these pages. Hattie and her tribe(s) are all broken and damaged by life and the choices they make. She is far from a perfect mother and her children don’t rise from their lot miraculously. I really appreciate that she doesn’t make this story easy on us, the reader.
The thing to do was to insult her or slap her or run her out into the night. She’d left him with all their children. She was holding another man’s baby in her arms. Anyone would agree that he ought to do something terrible to her, but she had been gone fifteen hours, and in that fifteen hours his life had crumbled like a lump of dry earth.”
Even in the end, with Hattie’s granddaughter, Mathis does not provide any resolutions to the stories we’ve read. I found the book’s ending perfectly in keeping with what had come before, experiencing a sense of closure without really knowing an “ending.”
This novel put me very much in mind of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge – interconnected stories, one strong-willed central woman around whom the novel branches out, strong sense of place, beautiful language.