The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

A quick rundown…A tragedy as a young mother leads to Hattie raising her children without a lot of affection. How do they turn out?

Strengths: Very emotional, interesting format.

Weaknesses: Not quite linear, not a lot of ‘follow up’ on each child as they age

Why I read it: Sent to me by The Reading Room and Random House Australia – thank you!

Pages: 256 (ebook ARC)

Published: 2012

Publisher: Random House

Setting: America

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has received a lot of buzz of late. Oprah named it as one of her book club reads and since then, the web has been full of chatter about it. So after Oprah has spoken about this book, what can I tell you?

It’s difficult to describe this book. It is a novel and it works like a novel – it has chapters, it moves forward in time, there’s a main character (Hattie) and supporting characters (her family)…but it doesn’t quite flow as you’d expect it to. It’s more glimpses of a family over a period of time, starting from Hattie as a young mother and ending as a grandmother. It follows one of Hattie’s children for a chapter, and then picks another. You might or might not hear about that character again, and if you do, it could just be via a comment from another character. For some, you never know their fate – live or die? Happy or sad?

Despite this, Mathis is a gifted writer and makes the stories come alive in your imagination. You can visualise the children looking for love from Hattie that’s futile and how it’s affected their decisions. Floyd looks for love from anyone, while Six tries to find the Lord. Some lock themselves away in a loveless marriage or in illness. It’s all very haunting and not very happy. This is a book you’d cry over, but rarely smile during the read. All the family suffer in at least one way – from Hattie and August’s move during The Great Migration to when the story ends in the 1970s.

This is more of a character portrait of Hattie, looking at her through her husband’s, lover’s and children’s eyes. Who is seeing the real Hattie? Is it only her granddaughter Sala? Is it none of the above? I would have loved to read more about The Great Migration, but like a lot of things in this book, it’s only hinted or glimpsed at as the characters focus on themselves and their family. Mathis’ portrayal of her characters is really strong – to the point where I think I could recognise them – but sometimes I just wanted to be told the story straight out and have the ends tied up neatly. Some have described it as being like interlinked short stories, but I needed to read it continually so I could try to pick out clues for what each child was doing as time went on.

This is Ayana Mathis’ debut novel and I’d definitely be interested in reading more. It’s an ambitious first book (I hesitate to say novel, it just didn’t follow that course for me) that sometimes hits the target perfectly, but occasionally left me wondering where the target was.

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2 thoughts on “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

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  1. What a great review; it really gives me a feel for the book. I always hesitate with Oprah’s picks, because, other than “The Red Tent” and a couple of others, I’ve always found myself in for a letdown. i’m not certain that this is the type of book for me; I do like to have some notion of what happens to a character that I’m interested in, but I did enjoy your review.

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