The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Ayana Mathis

Fifteen years old and blazing with the hope of a better life, Hattie Shepherd fled the horror of the American South on a dawn train bound for Philadelphia.

Hattie’s is a tale of strength, of resilience and heartbreak that spans six decades. Her American dream is shattered time and again: a husband who lies and cheats and nine children raised in a cramped little house that was only ever supposed to be temporary. She keeps the children alive with sheer will and not an ounce of the affection they crave. She knows they don’t think her a kind woman - but how could they understand that all the love she had was used up in feeding them and clothing them. How do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel?

The lives of this unforgettable family form a searing portrait of twentieth century America. From the revivalist tents of Alabama to Vietnam, to the black middle-class enclave in the heart of the city, to a filthy bar in the ghetto, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is an extraordinary, distinctive novel about the guilt, sacrifice, responsibility and heartbreak that are an intrinsic part of ferocious love.


The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is unlike any book I’ve read before. It is beautifully written and richly descriptive, with a perfect balance of characterisation and action. I was eager to get back to it each day, and I have a feeling that it is one of those stories that will stay with me for a long time.

The novel is a dark yet ultimately affectionate portrait of a woman, Hattie, and her family. Beginning in 1925 with the birth of her first child , we are introduced to Hattie as a newly married woman of 17. She has recently migrated north from Georgia to Philadelphia and has sworn never to return south. What follows is a series of episodes that span the next 60 years.

The book is organised into chapters, each delving into the life of one of Hattie’s children (and one grandchild). In some ways, these could read like short stories, connected by the character of Hattie, who runs through the novel like a single rough, sinewy thread. While each of the children’s stories are separate, Hattie is always a feature of their experience of the world. She is worn down and distant, abruptly affectionate in her tough-love approach, and hardened by necessity and a no-good husband into withholding everything but the bare minimum.

The overall effect of this carefully drawn family portrait is one of life that is difficult, cruel and ultimately damaging. However, while this kind of message could easily beat a reader down with traumatic experiences, Mathis’s episodic structure does not allow this. Instead, I was left with the impression of a fractured culture and its fractured lives, as disjointed from one another as they are fiercely connected through the experience of one heartrending character.

Amy Vuleta works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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