The opening chapter (“Philadelphia and Jubilee, 1925”) of Ayana Mathis’s disturbing story, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, quickly establishes the filial context that will result in decades of dysfunction. As part of the Great Migration, Hattie Shepherd left Georgia at age fifteen and, along with her family, settled in Philadelphia. Two years later—after a quick marriage—she gives birth to twins, whom she calls Philadelphia and Jubilee, but in a terrible winter the babies die from pneumonia. That incident embitters her for the rest of her life, turns her into a cold, distant mother, even though she will bear nine more children and remain married to August who is a more demonstrative parent than she, though he’s a terrible provider.
The concluding chapter of Mathis’s novel is dated 1980, with intervening sections—dated by year and the name of one or more of Hattie’s children—each revealing the cycles of pain, poverty, and the emptiness her adult children feel about their mother. Cassie remarks, “Mother was never tender,” though one suspects that any one of the others would have said the same. The twins, plus the nine subsequent children, total eleven—not twelve mentioned in the title—but that final section (“Sala”) is Cassie’s daughter, thus bringing the number to a dozen, though even here, when Hattie is seventy-one years old, there’s still a remarkable coldness demonstrated by the matriarch, plus the continuation of hatred and instability.
Repeatedly pregnant, Hattie uses up most of her energy and emotion in child-bearing. In the section of the novel called “Ruthie,” and dated 1951, she attempts to leave August, whom she refers to as useless, though she admits also to a strong sexual attraction between the two of them. With her youngest child in tow, she leaves her family and Philadelphia, accompanied by the man it turns out is the father of her latest child. Hattie’s assumption is that Lawrence, who is a railroad porter, will be a more reliable provider than August. She’s willing to abandon all of her other children and leave with Lawrence for Baltimore. Yet just as soon as they get there, Lawrence leaves Hattie and their child for a quick poker game, and that decision tells Hattie that she’d just as well be back with August in Philadelphia. The devil you know is the devil you can live with.
When she returns, Hattie and August’s relationship is characterized as follows, “August heard a small whimpering, a quiet sniffling that could have been the baby, but it stopped so abruptly he knew it was Hattie. His stomach churned with the liquor. He stood in front of her and lifted his arms out to his sides. It was not an invite to embrace but a resignation, as if to say, here we are; this is all we have. He dropped his arms and sat, with a groan, on the sofa. There were too many disappointments to name and too much heartbreak. They were beyond punishment or forgiveness, beyond what they had inflicted on each other, beyond love.”
“Ella, 1954” has to be the most heart-wrenching section of Mathis’s novel—centered, like virtually all of the other chapters, on the dynamics of mother and child. Hattie is 46 years old, having given birth still again to a child she doesn’t know how to love. Days pass when Hattie and August barely talk to one another. Hattie is stunned by her “sporadic urgency with him. It had confounded and humiliated her for the thirty years of their marriage. These endless pregnancies. And worse, her body’s insistence on a man who was the greatest mistake of her life.” Once again, she tries to alter her future, agreeing to give the child away to her well-off sister in Georgia who has tried to become pregnant and hasn’t succeeded. The sequence packs an emotional wallop, shifting emotion from the character to the reader, jerking human feelings back and forth and leaving the characters utterly devastated.
The novel’s movement through time and shifting focus from one of Hattie’s children to the next is both its strength and its weakness. In its repetitions of pain and suffering, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie reveals the hopelessness of a family’s struggle to cohere, to survive, to succeed in the midst of stunning brutality and tortured emotion—not unlike the family dynamics of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Yet the individual focus of each chapter means that characters are introduced and then dropped, never to be mentioned again, as if Hattie has abandoned all of them, left them by the wayside to fend for themselves.
Ayana Mathis: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Knopf, 243 pp., $24.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.