The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. NY: Knopf, 2012.
You may have heard about (or of course already read) this book. It has received a lot of attention. I received this book as a Christmas gift, in part due to its Philadelphia setting, but Philadelphia has only a minor role to play in this series of tales. Hattie, at a young age, moves with her mother and sister from Georgia to Philadelphia during the great northern migration--it could have been any southern state and any cold northern city. Hattie settles in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia and marries and has children, twins, by the time she is 17. During the twins first cold, northern winter, they contract pneumonia and die. Hattie survives their deaths, but despite giving birth to nine more children, her tenderness is gone with the twins, and pragmatism directed toward bare survival is her primary parental characteristic. Mathis's novel is essentially a collection of linked stories, each chapter telling the story of one (or two) of Hattie's children at a different point of time from 1925 to 1980. Each story is moving in its own way and demonstrates the hardships of poverty, racial discrimination, gender and sexual orientation bias and the self-doubt and self-loathing that comes with living with all of these hardships.
Floyd is a jazz musician coming to terms with his sexual orientation, for which he faces violence and descrimination from whites and blacks alike. Floyd has chosen to remain away from home, working in the north and the south as a musician. He seeks out the love and comfort of his mother in his confusion and fear. In this story, Hattie maintains some of her motherlove and tenderness ... but it is far from present in the stories that follow.
Six, who has serious scars from terrible burn accident, has violently beaten another boy in retaliation for the treatment he has received from others. He is whisked away in the night to avoid punishment and enters the preaching life living primarily in the south. Although he has no sense of his religious calling, Six nonetheless undergoes a transformation in the heat of revival meetings, and evokes the spirit for others. In addition, Six is believed to have healing powers. Women are drawn to him and he does not resist them.
Ruthie, is one of Hattie's youngest children. Hattie believes her to be the child of her lover, Lawerence, not of her husband, August. Although her husband is a source of unhappiness for her, August is in his way devoted to his children. He is lost in the world he lives in, floating from job to job, woman to woman, and neglectful of his wife and fiscal responsibilities. In Ruthie's chapter, Hattie attempts to run away with Lawrence, and he is ready to care for her and their daughter, but, in the end, Hattie cannot leave her older children behind. And it is clear, from the scenes of the abandoned at home, that the household depends on her. August, her husband, takes her back gratefully and loses none of his love for Ruthie as Hattie reveals that the child is not his.
Ella is born five years after Ruthie, and August arranges for her to go to Hattie's childless and well-to-do sister Pearl who lives with her husband in Georgia. As the couple drive to Philadelphia to meet their soon to be adopted daughter they are violently harassed by white thugs at a roadside park. Escaping with their lives but having been robbed of their belongings and their dignity. As they make their way to Philadelphia, Hattie struggles with the approaching loss of her daughter and her resentment of her sister and her lifestyle.
Jumping from 1954 to 1968, daughter Alice has married into wealth. Her concerns have to do with the managing of a large home, entertaining, and looking the part. She is close to the extent of co-dependency with her younger brother Billups. It becomes clear as the story progresses that she and her brother have a dark secret about which they have never told their parents. The secret is theirs together. Billups finally succeeds in breaking free of Alice's desperate hold on him, but this is devastating for her.
Franklin is serving in Vietnam. He is writing a letter to the girl at home who he lost even before leaving for the war. If going to war is supposed to turn the boy into a man who can face responsibility, it is clear from Franklin's letter that the war is devastating and dehumanizing. Bell, in 1979, is dying of tuberculosis. As a child, from the school bus window, she had witnessed her mother out walking with her lover. Her mother looked beautiful and happy with Lawrence, and Bell wonders how this same woman could be her mother. Haunted by this, as a grown woman, she meets an older (but perhaps not wiser) Lawrence and seduces him eventually createing an impenetrable barrier between mother and daughter, that only begins to heal, when Hattie, through various twists and turns learns of her daughter's illness and comes to care for her and help her back to health and to family.
Cassie suffers from severe mental illness and her parents have decided to institutionalize her and the final chapter, the twelfth in Hattie's tribe, is devoted to Cassie's daughter Sala who suffers through the deterioration of her mother's mental health and then loses her altogether when Hattie and August determine that Cassie is a danger to herself, Sala, and others.
While each story on its own is moving, it is difficult to accept that all of Hattie's nine surviving children could have such unrelentingly tragic stories. In the end Hattie recovers some of her tenderness to nurse Bell back to mental and physical health, and it is clear that she will attempt to nurture Sala. Bellup breaks away from his dark past to find a new path to wholeness. August appears to go through his difficult life without being destroyed by the pain and misery around him and he maintains a kind of loyalty to wife and children. Mathis's novel fits into the genre of expansive family sagas, as she picks up the reader and drops her in and out of individual moments within one Philadelphia family's history.