The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Written by Ayana Mathis
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Surely the whole world knows by now that this novel is an Oprah pick. I have never used television to choose my novels, but I was already talking this book up to family and friends before I heard that Mathis’s fortune was made.

The Hattie of the title is an African-American who becomes part of the Great Migration to Northern cities, hopeful to escape Jim Crow, “her skirt still hemmed with Georgia mud.” In the first harrowing chapter, 16-year-old Hattie, without money or family to help, watches her 7-month-old twins die of pneumonia in the cold North. Each of the chapters that follow focuses on one of her other nine children and one granddaughter – the twelve tribes – not in the order of their births, but in the order that the most important events of their lives occurred in time, from 1925 to 1980. What a brilliant form Mathis hit upon to bring control and universality to what must have started as a chaos of her own family’s stories.

None of these stories is free of the heartbreak and corrosive effects of poverty, for the North wasn’t Zion, after all. Even marrying a rich doctor doesn’t save Alice from her own destructive guilt. But the humanity must reach everywhere, the characters beautifully drawn. And Hattie – who never showed an ounce of tenderness in her life, she was too busy trying to keep her kids clothed and fed – may become a great American heroine.