Author: Ayana Mathis
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Publishing Date: December 2012
A DEBUT OF EXTRAORDINARY DISTINCTION: through the trials of one unforgettable family, Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration, a story of love and bitterness and the promise of a new America.
In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother's monumental courage and the journey of a nation.
Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis's The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last--glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing novel, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis is a story that takes place during the Great Migration, a time when millions of African Americans migrated from the rural south to the cities in the North, Midwest and West. Hattie, her mother and sisters, Marion and Pearl, left Georgia in 1923 to live in Philadelphia after their father was killed. Hattie vowed she would never return to Georgia after witnessing a white man apologize to a black woman which was something she had never witnessed in the South. Each chapter is dedicated to each one Hattie's twelve children which gives an account of their lives but also snippets of Hattie's life throughout the years. We hear in their voices about their childhood, the relationship with Hattie and August and the choices they've made in their adult lives.
It begins in 1925 with Hattie's twin children, Philadelphia and Jubilee, who are sick, however Hattie can't afford to get the necessary medicine, which would only cost a few cents to get but can't afford to buy. This already shows Hattie and August are struggling financially. Floyd's story begins in 1948, when he decides to leave home and become a jazz musician. He travels a lot trying to find the next gig all over the South. Oftentimes while on tour he reflects on his childhood when it was only Hattie and his sister, Cassie, at home alone. During that time Hattie was suffering from depression and he would often check to make sure she was still alive. "Though Hattie's grief suffocated, though Floyd and Cassie were untended as strays, the cold, cloistered rooms of Wayne Street took on a kind of beauty in Floyd's memory. . . .They were companions, mother and children, equally vulnerable and yearning, drifting through the days together." The more Floyd stayed away from Philadelphia and toured the more reckless his sexual behavior became. In 1950, Hattie and August sent their son Six with Reverend Grist on a revival circuit in the South after beating a classmate almost to death. Suffering due to an accident at nine years old, Six regularly spent his days in the house hiding from everyone specially Hattie. "His pain and weakness made him special--especially wronged and especially indignant--exceptional because he had suffered. His pain was his most precious and secret possession, and Six held on to it as fiercely as a jewel robbed from a corpse." The reason he was taken on the revival, aside to save his life, is because he has a gift of preaching, however, if it was at all possible Six "would have asked God to take his gift away." In 1951 Ruthie is born, Hattie leaves August and takes Ruthie with her to be with her boyfriend Lawrence. While they were on the way to Baltimore, August couldn't believe Hattie left him and he had no idea what to do or where anything was to take care of the children. August reflects how much he wanted to be with Hattie when he was a young man. When he was seventeen Hattie got pregnant and at the time he didn't imagine his life would have left him with a house full of kids and no wife. While sitting in his own misery August ponders what is lacking in his marriage. At the same time while on the road to Baltimore, Hattie tries to explain to Lawrence what she needs from him. "I couldn't stand to be a fool a second time. I couldn't stand it." Hattie said. "Helping me? It isn't help I need, Lawrence. It's a safe port in a storm." Hattie soon realizes that Lawrence was only feeding her pipe dreams.
"I couldn't stand to be a fool a second time. I couldn't stand it."- Hattie
In 1954 Hattie has another daughter, Ella. Hattie had to resort to getting benefits from the government due to always struggling financially . A social worker stops by every week to "ensure that Hattie continued to be a suitable candidate for the benefits she received each month." August thinks Ella would have a better life with Hattie's sister, Pearl, since they can't afford another mouth to feed but Hattie is upset he is trying to give their child away. Pearl lives in Georgia with her husband, Benny, and since they're unable to have children Pearl offered to take Ella. They drove in from Georgia but Hattie was starting to regret her decision to give Ella to them. When it came time to give up Ella, Hattie and August stood together and found it hard to do. August found the strength to finally tell Hattie how he felt about letting Ella go and what happened to their first two children. At that point Hattie and August decided to let Ella go with Pearl and Benny. By 1968 Hattie's daughter Alice is married to a black doctor and busy planning a lavish party. Out of all of her siblings she is very close to her little brother Billup. She feels responsible for him and takes care of him such as buying him clothes, finding him an apartment and paying his rent. They share a secret which tie them together but Billup is ready to move on from Alice's constant care so he got his own apartment and started dating her maid. Alice feels betrayed by both of them and fires her maid. During this timeframe Hattie has been constantly saving and is ready to buy a house because she believes "renting made them poor and common" unfortunately the sale fell through. Alice felt Hattie was too proud to take any money from her. In 1969, Franklin is fighting in the Vietnam war but he is also fighting to keep his marriage together. He fantasizes getting his wife back when he returns from war. Franklin met Sissy at the beach and they married six months later. Sissy left Franklin due to his alcoholism and gambling problem. Sissy is familiar with those vices because her father was the same way. When Franklin was trying to straighten up, he promised Hattie one thousand dollars to help her buy the house but he never came through with the money. It's 1975 and Hattie's daughter Bell is suffering from tuberculosis and is dying in the apartment she's getting evicted from. She hasn't spoken to Hattie in ten years. Ten years ago Bell runs into Lawrence and out of vengeance and jealousy she starts dating him. Bell knew about Hattie and Lawrence because she saw them walking together when she was seventeen years old. Lawrence introduced Hattie to Bell not knowing they are mother and daughter. Once Hattie and Lawrence realized what was going on, it was the last time Hattie and Lawrence spoke to Bell. Suddenly Hattie is there to save her from dying in the apartment alone. Bell was taken to a hospital to treat her tuberculosis. Hattie and August are buying a house New Jersey and Hattie invited Bell to go stay with them. In 1980 Hattie's oldest daughter Cassie suffers from mental illness. She lives with her ten year old daughter Sala in Hattie's house. August and Hattie decide to put her in a mental hospital after she destroys Hattie's garden and locks herself in her room with Sala. Now that Cassie is in the mental institution Sala is living with her grandparents. She saw them driving away and wanted them to stop but couldn't catch the car. Hattie felt to old and tired to try to raise another child but with Sala she didn't want her to live her life as a fraud.
"Half of what's wrong with people today is that they ain't got no place to go that makes them peaceful." - Willie
Reading The Twelve Tribes of Hattie brought forth a lot of emotions for me at the time. Having a sick child while reading the book and the main character having to deal with something similar made me put the book down a couple of times. There is no way you can read this book without feeling angry, frustrated, sad and shocked. This doesn't mean the book isn't any good but clearly it brings forth a lot of emotions while reading it. I just mean that it can be a rather difficult book to get through. I would definitely reread this book in order to possibly grasp a different understanding of the characters. Although we never hear from Hattie herself we definitely get a picture of what her life was like through her children's stories. None of her children have a close relationship with her or August. If anything they were all afraid of her and her temper. Can you really blame Hattie for being angry all the time though? Life seemed to have dealt her a difficult hand. August was always struggling to find work. He would often take his money to bars or spend it on other women, which meant Hattie constantly had to struggle to keep a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs and clothes on their backs. Any time she was able to save a little bit August would come along and pester her for it. If you were Hattie, wouldn't you try to find some peace in all the chaos? Yes, you probably would which is why she ended up with Lawrence. Even that didn't prove to be fruitful for her but it provided a moment of escapism from her real life or at least some hope of something better in the future. However, he was just as bad if not worse than August. Hattie at least knew what she had with August but Lawrence constantly fed her pipe dreams. Luckily Hattie realized it before it was too late. With all of this said I'm not entirely taking Hattie and August off the hook. While they were struggling in their marriage they were still producing a lot of children that needed to be taken care of financially as well as emotionally. There isn't one kid that isn't emotionally screwed up. Hattie didn't show any of the kids much love and affection while they were growing up since she was too busy trying to keep them all clothed and fed. August, on the other hand, loved their kids and would show them attention and affection but he couldn't provide them with financial stability. The kids struggled to find what was missing from their home life in others or in opportunities. I found myself angry with Hattie and August because her being angry at August/her life led her to be emotionally absent to her children and he didn't consider anyone else but his own needs and didn't take care of his home. What can I say about Floyd, Cassie, Bell, Six, Alice, Billup, Franklin, Ruthie and Ella? In a nut shell, they all needed there parents to be there for them. Towards the end it comes back full circle and Hattie is left having to take care of another child, her granddaughter Sala, but in this case I believe she realizes she can't let Sala make wrong decisions due to being hurt and wounded by the loss of her mother.
The reason I gave this book 4.25 rating is because I wanted to hear from Hattie. While we know what she's endured throughout the years, I wanted to hear how she felt about her children, husband and life. I can only speculate, as the reader, and I'm sure I wasn't too far off but only the person living the life can properly convey their feelings. I wanted to hear her say she loved her kids and regretted not being there for them. I didn't want to think of her as just being angry towards everything and everyone.
Did you read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie? What did you think? Did you like it? What did you think of Hattie? August? What did you think of the kids? Do you think they chose their lives or it was chosen for them by the way they grew up? Do you think Hattie could've changed after August finally told her he was suffering too? Do you think Hattie and August made the right decision giving Ella away? Is there anything you would've changed in the story? What would you rate the book?
Let me know what you think!
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