Loneliness and hard-won grace pervade “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” Ayana Mathis’ virtuoso debut novel. This portrait of three generations of an African-American family spans more than a half-century and most of the life of its indelible title character, Hattie Shepherd.
Mathis is an elegant stylist with a sure eye for the telling detail and a deft hand for creating and controlling suspense. As her characters suffer and stray, she walks the fine line of treating them with compassion but never sentimentality.
The tale opens in 1925. Two years before, Hattie and her mother and sisters fled their Georgia home after her father was murdered by white men. When Hattie stands for the first time on the streets of Philadelphia and sees black people walking freely on the sidewalk rather than stepping off it for whites to pass, she never wants to leave.
By age 17, Hattie has married a young electrician named August Shepherd and is the doting mother of twins. “The neighborhood rang with birdsong. The twittering lulled the twins to sleep and put Hattie in such high spirits that she giggled all the time. … the grass in Hattie and August’s tiny square of lawn was green as the first day of the world.”
But that green day darkens with sickening speed. The infants die of pneumonia – a loss Mathis describes in spare but shattering detail – leaving their mother with a hole in her heart that never heals.
At first she struggles with depression so deep that she can barely care for the first few children that quickly come along; there will be nine who live. Then she rebuilds herself into a mother whose kids endlessly calculate both how to dodge her strict discipline and win her perhaps impossible affection.
Although Hattie is the central character, Mathis tells her story through her children. Each chapter bears the names of one or two of them and plunges us into their very different lives.
Each chapter also bears a date, from 1948 to 1980, but within them Mathis moves back and forth in time, filling in past and present. One chapter is named for daughter Ruthie, born of Hattie’s second short-lived bout of happiness: an affair with a dashing man named Lawrence Bernard. For him, Hattie does the unthinkable; she walks out on August and all their children, taking only Ruthie.
As years pass, some of Hattie’s children seem to have found good lives, but not without searing losses of their own. Oldest son Floyd becomes a successful musician, but only by resolving to suppress his sexuality after a frightening night in a Georgia juke joint. Daughter Alice marries a doctor and uses her wealth to take care of her damaged brother Billups, or so we think until it becomes clear who is the damaged one. Son Six, scarred from a childhood burning, tries to become a preacher, discovers he is not touched by God and becomes a preacher anyway.
Some of Hattie’s other children take more tortured paths; the most harrowing, perhaps, is her daughter Bell’s. As a teen, Bell was shocked to catch a glimpse of Hattie with Lawrence; when Bell meets him years later, she begins a breathtakingly cruel affair with him. We learn her story as she is near death from tuberculosis, relishing her atonement. But Hattie isn’t done with her.
Racial prejudice and inequality are among the forces Hattie and her family contend with, to be sure, but Mathis’ novel is about human experiences that we all share, about love and loss, and about the tremendous distances and inextricable bonds that form our families.