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In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles...
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 page-turner, 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.
“Pulses with life and emotion…thrilling.”
“From the first sentence on, Mathis writes vividly and sensitively of one family’s journey and struggles over a lifetime, creating a stirring portrait of family, loss, and endurance in the twentieth century…a beautiful tapestry.”
—Courtney Allison, Everyday eBook
“A stirring, soulful novel that spans 60 years and is told in many rich and varied voices. It’s the story of one formidable woman, and of her children—the ‘tribes’—at different stages of their sprawling lives. It’s the story of the Great Migration, and of its ripping, aching effects across the 20th century…The Twelve Tribes of Hattie wallops you from the first chapter, but the book’s emotional power grows with the story as the decades pass and the scope of this family’s life is revealed.”
“One of the finest-drawn portraits of a family…These are tales steeped in race, a mother’s scarred heart, and a world where illness, both mental and physical, keeps threatening to steal souls away. The stories are emotional, sharp, poignant, and beautiful, made so by Mathis’ compassionate and layered storytelling and truthful prose, which ultimately seals each member to their family fold…characters who courageously forge forward in their quest for identity, love, and the American dream.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“Masterfully written. Capturing a range of settings and time periods, from a Southern jazz club in the 1940s to a beach in Vietnam in the 1960s, each member of the family is rendered with subtlety and honesty…always authentic and alive.”
“Loneliness and hard-won grace pervade Ayana Mathis’ virtuoso debut novel…As her characters suffer and stray, she walks the fine line of treating them with compassion but never sentimentality…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.”
—Tampa Bay Times
“Hypnotic…evocative, ambitious…encompassing Dickinson, Morrison, and the poetry of Rita Dove…Mathis understands both heritage and craft.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Mathis’ writing is beautiful and confident; she moves from one voice and scene to the next with ease and creates rich characters and vivid settings. She gets to the heart of these people, gets their voices just right and gives each one a unique perspective and personality…Literary readers will enjoy the craftsmanship and emotional reach, and it’s a natural choice for book clubs with lots to talk about…It’s a beautiful work with more than a dash of heartbreak and hope.”
“An exploration of race, gander, and struggle…Mathis writes with power and insight. Though less lyrical, she is a more accessible writer than Toni Morrison.”
“Beautiful…The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will break your heart, but give you hope—and illuminate the harsh realities of poverty, racism, and unmet expectations. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth it.”
“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a vibrant and compassionate portrait of a family hardened and scattered by circumstance and yet deeply a family. Its language is elegant in its purity and rigor. The characters are full of life, mingled thing that it is, and dignified by the writer’s judicious tenderness towards them. This first novel is a work of rare maturity.”
“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is beautiful and necessary from the very first sentence. The human lives it renders are on every page lowdown and glorious, fallen and redeemed, and all at the same time. They would be too heartbreaking to follow, in fact, were they not observed in such a generous and artful spirit of hope, in a spirit of mercy, in the spirit of love. Ayana Mathis has written a treasure of a novel.”
“Writing with stunning authority, clarity, and courage, debut novelist Mathis pivots forward in time, spotlighting intensely dramatic episodes in the lives of Hattie's nine subsequent children (and one grandchild to make the ‘twelve tribes’), galvanizing crises that expose the crushed dreams and anguished legacy of the Great Migration….Mathis writes with blazing insight into the complexities of sexuality, marriage, family relationships, backbone, fraudulence, and racism in a molten novel of lives racked with suffering yet suffused with beauty.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
“Remarkable…Mathis weaves this story with confidence, proving herself a gifted and powerful writer.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Cutting, emotional…pure heartbreak…though Mathis has inherited some of Toni Morrison’s poetic intonation, her own prose is appealingly earthbound and plainspoken, and the book’s structure is ingenious…an excellent debut.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"None of Us Give or Receive a Perfect Love": A Q&A with Ayana Mathis
I adore Hattie Shepherd, the protagonist of Ayana Mathis's terrific debut, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. I won't deny she's a bit trying at times—"distant and cold and unknowable" as Mathis says below—but I'm a New Englander (some might argue we Yankees have distant and cold and unknowable stamped on our bones), and here I am, writing about a fictional character as if I'd met her in the flesh.
The readers on our Discover committee adore Hattie, too, selecting the book for our Spring 2013 Discover Great New Writers list.
So it's no wonder that Oprah Winfrey adores Hattie, too, making it the second pick of Oprah's Book Club 2.0.
In this exclusive Q&A with Discover Great New Writers, Ayana discusses the profound changes brought by the Great Migration, what it feels like to be alone in a crowd, and her "hard to love" character, Hattie Shepherd.—Miwa Messer, Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program
What was your inspiration for the novel, why did you want to write about these people?
I grew up in unusual family circumstances: I had lots of aunts and uncles, but my mother and I had very little contact with them after I was ten or so. My mother was always telling stories about the 1940s and '50s, the years of her childhood and adolescence, and about her siblings. It's as though I grew up with family ghosts, vague figures that weren't quite real. It didn't help that my mother's stories were just the barest of snippets. As I got older, those stories expanded in my imagination until they grew to mythic proportion. In many ways the novel is my attempt to imagine my way into family and to understand where I came from, to give myself grounding and a context. The characters in the novel are also a part of my family's wider historical context. Hattie's children are the first generation of Great Migration children born in the North.
What is the Great Migration, and what does it have to do with the book?
The Great Migration is one of the most enormously impactful migratory movements of the twentieth century. From 1910 to 1970 some 6 million blacks left the terrors of the Jim Crow South, often with nothing—a few dollars or just enough food for their journey—for the cities of the North, West, and Midwest. Their movement profoundly changed America—demographically, culturally, intellectually, and politically. I don't know that James Baldwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Thurgood Marshall, or other black luminaries of the last century could have developed their incredible gifts had they not escaped the boot of racial oppression in the South. And of course, now we have second and third generations of northerners, like Michelle Obama or Toni Morrison, the children and grandchildren of the Great Migration. My own grandparents were a part of that movement, as are Hattie Shepherd and her children. Certainly, Hattie's life in the North isn't easy, but she believes powerfully in its potential, if not for her then for her children. The book is very specifically about Hattie but she is also a symbol of the incredible heroism of millions of men and woman who faced the same ferocious odds, men and women who did not merely survive, but grew into a nation. Theirs is a very American story.
Why did you decide on this episodic structure?
I wish I could say that I'm a genius and had thought it all out before I wrote a single word. Nope. The truth is that I thought I was writing short stories. I was on the third one by the time I realized they were part of a novel; the structure was pretty clear by that point. That said, it works in a number of ways. The Shepherds are a Great Migration family, and so it's fitting that their story would span the decades of that movement. Secondly, Hattie isn't about family life in the conventional sense, I don't think I would know how to write a book like that. These characters were raised to be tough and self-reliant no matter what. The price of that independence is isolation, from each other, from Hattie and sometimes from themselves. I wanted to explore the idea of being alone in a crowd, of being so "strong" that you aren't able to ask for help though you're surrounded by people who could help you. In each chapter the characters are at a critical point, a life moment during which his or her strengths and weaknesses are most in play. (As in life, I think, we are most ourselves, or at least most raw, when everything is going haywire.) The episodic structure allows the reader to witness the characters in their critical moments, and then zoom out and move on to the next one. In a more conventionally structured novel I couldn't have all of the characters in crisis every minute, it's unnatural and would become tedious really quickly.
Also, I think of Hattie and her children as little lights, in the way lights twinkle in a city skyline at night. There is something about that twinkling, all of these separate lights that make something glorious when seen together, that was fascinating and very beautiful to me.
A line in the novel describes Hattie as "hard to love." What is it about her that's so difficult, and what does that mean for her children?
Hattie isn't tender. She's not milk-and-cookies, bedtime story kind of a mother. She loves her children deeply, but that love is shown through feeding them and clothing them and keeping them alive. And more than that, Hattie believes that part of her duty as a mother in the pre–civil rights era is to prepare her children for a world that will not be kind to them. She's afraid that too much tenderness will make them too soft to meet the difficulties they will surely encounter as they grow up. Of course, her children don't see things that way. They find her distant and cold and unknowable. They are all suffering from a kind of acute mother- want; they miss Hattie even though she's right there with them physically. I think the book is also about flawed love, as it is given and received. And isn't that everyone's story? None of us give or receive a perfect love. We, like Hattie's children, have to learn how go on with the business of living though we don't always get what we need, or what we think we need.
I was also interested in exploring the idea of strength. I think there is a tendency to understand strength as an all or nothing state of being. When we say people are strong we presume that those people, those heroes, don't suffer doubt and fear, that they aren't scarred in some way, or weary. Which isn't true of course, all of these things are part of being human. Hattie is most certainly strong, and enormously heroic, but she is also stern and vulnerable and angry. She's fully human, the good and bad. And the more complex aspects of her character are little hard to love.
—December 5, 2012
1. Hattie is, by any measure, a complicated, difficult woman. Did you love her, hate her, find it difficult to have sympathy for her? Is she a good mother? Why or why not?
2. Why do you suppose the author chose to have Philadelphia and Jubilee die in the novel’s first chapter? The novel moves backward and forward in time. What function is served by showing us this loss at the outset? How does this serve the novel and inform our understanding of Hattie?
3. “In Georgia the preacher had called the North a New Jerusalem. The congregation said he was a traitor to the cause of the southern Negro. He was gone the next day on a train for Chicago. Others, too, were going, disappearing from their shops and their fields. All of those souls, escaped from the South, were at this very moment glowing with promise in the wretched winters of the cities of the North. Hattie knew her babies would survive. Though they were small and struggling, Philadelphia and Jubilee were already among those luminous souls, already the beginning of a new nation.” Discuss this passage in relation to the novel’s themes. In fact, Hattie is mistaken here; her babies do not survive. What does this say about the provenance of the new nation of which she speaks?
4. Six perceives his spiritual gifts as an affliction, entangled with his physical suffering, and likens his moments of communion to seizures and fits. “What was grace if it came on him like a seizure that left him as frail and hurting as he had been before its visit? His experience of God was a violent surge he couldn’t control...if he’d known how to pray, Six would have asked God to take his gift away.” Elsewhere, he describes himself as a “ruined instrument” of God. What is your understanding of Six’s spirituality? Does he have the power to heal? How do you think the author views him, and what do you think happens to him in the future? Does the author provide another glimpse of him in the novel, and if so, what does she suggest about his fate?
5. In one of the novel’s most dramatic and revealing chapters, Hattie leaves August with the older children and escapes with baby Ruthie (then called Margaret) and her lover, Lawrence. How did this make you feel? Were you hoping she would stay with Lawrence or go back to August and the children?
6. “Lawrence understood her. It seemed to him that every time he made one choice in his life, he said no to another. All of those things he could not do or be were huddled inside of him; they might spring up at any moment, and he would be hobbled with regret. He pulled to the shoulder of the rode and held her. She was a beating heart in his hand.” What is at stake in this moment, for each of them?
7. What do you learn in the chapter called “Ruthie” about August as a husband? As a father? As a man?
8. Does August change throughout the course of the novel? Do you feel differently about him at the novel’s end than at the beginning?
9. Discuss the disagreement between Hattie and August in the chapter “Ruthie” about Cassie learning to play piano. Cassie’s teacher agrees to teach her for free. Hattie rejects the offer, saying that “it wasn’t practical for a Negro girl to fill her head with music.” August feels it’s a mistake to take away her dreams. Who is right? Look in particular at their disagreement and at the passage on page 88 in which August ponders their predicament and the question of what it means to have “a better life.” What do you think it means, in this context, to have a better life?
10. What kind of marriage do Hattie and August have? Look at the scene in which Hattie returns from Baltimore. Were you surprised that August took her back, with, as he says, “another man’s baby in her arms? Anyone would agree that he ought to do something terrible to her, but she had been gone fifteen hours, and in that fifteen hours his life had crumpled like a lump of dry earth.” What has August learned in Hattie’s absence? Look also at the chapter’s ending, in which Mathis writes: “It was not an invite to embrace but a resignation, as if to say, here we are; this is all we have…There were too many disappointments to name and too much heartbreak. They were beyond punishment or forgiveness, beyond what they had inflicted each other, beyond love.” What does it mean to be beyond love? Consider as well Hattie’s confession in the chapter “Ella,” in which she describes “her body’s insistence on a man who was the greatest mistake of her life.”
11. Discuss the scene in which Pearl and Benny are interrupted during their picnic by a group of white men. How did you feel about Benny’s choices? Does Pearl have a right to be angry? What do you think you would have done in these circumstances?
12. Reread the anguished scene in which Hattie and August give Ella to Marion and Benny. August tells Hattie, “We had that pain…and we’ll have this too.” Did they do the right thing? Was this chapter tragic? Hopeful?
13. Discuss the use of point of view in the chapter “Alice and Billups.” Whose point of view did you initially trust in this chapter? How does this change by the chapter’s end?
14. Why does Franklin throw his letter to Sissy into the bay? Is this an act of cowardice, or could it be read as heroism?
15. In one of the novel’s climactic moments, Hattie and Lawrence bump into each other in a department store, and she discovers that Lawrence is romantically entangled with her daughter Bell. Why does Bell seduce Lawrence? What does she hope to achieve? What, if anything, does she learn about herself after her mother discovers her affair?
16. How is Bell different from her sisters and brothers? How is her relationship with Hattie different? How has her relationship with her mother defined her? Look in particular at the passage on page 212, in which Mathis writes: “Adulthood brought Bell a kind of freedom but no relief. She felt defective in some vital way, incapable of doing the right thing. She was constantly afraid that some force would strike her down for her failings.” Look also at the extraordinary passage on page 217: “Ruthie had said once that Bell and Hattie were just alike. It wasn’t true. Hattie was stronger than Bell could ever be. She didn’t know how to tend to her children’s souls, but she fought to keep them alive and to keep herself alive. That was more than Bell could say. All of them—Hattie and Willie and Evelyln and even crazed, ruined Walter—were like little lights; sparks flying upward in dark places, trying to stay alight though they were compelled toward ash.”
17. Race, poverty, history, class—Ayana Mathis speaks to all of these in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and subtly complicates our understanding of the forces and conditions that drove political and social reform in the first part of the twentieth century. An argument could be made that the new North was built on the backs of Hattie’s children. Discuss this idea.
18. Why does Hattie refuse to let Sala take the mercy seat?
19. Reread the novel’s final paragraph. Is this a happy ending or a heartbreaking one? Resigned, or hopeful? Did you feel differently about Hattie in the novel’s last lines? Has she changed?
20. How do you imagine Sala’s life might differ from the lives of her aunts and uncles? What do you think the author is suggesting thematically through the character of Sala, who, although a generation removed, is Hattie’s essential twelfth tribe?
Posted December 24, 2012
I hate this kind of writing. There is no plot, no moral, no fully formed characters. There also are no redeeming features to this depressing drivel whatsoever. It reminds me of high school girls writing overly dramatic essays full of 'OMG!' That speaks to the depth of the novel adequately. Perhaps someday this author can find a true voice which speaks of joy, redemption, or lessons learned. Or, novel idea, tells a STORY! I admit I was caught by the Oprah hook, much to my regret. Readers, find a good book to spend your hard earned dollars on and give this author a wide berth until she really has something to say.
22 out of 39 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 6, 2012
I don't always agree with Oprah, but this one is definitely a winner. Grabs you from the beginning and doesn't lrt go.
20 out of 20 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 9, 2013
Life is not always what you expect. When you make choices whether to choose one thing or one person over another you belief that you've made the right choice. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is about sexuality, adultery, life, consequences, circumstances and choices. In 1923, Hattie Shepherd, was just fifteen years old, when she made the decision to leave Georgia for a better life in Philadelphia to start a family and become a wife. Her life was hard, challenging and the decisions she made were based upon her in-experiences of life. These challenges, as seen through the eyes of her children, caused them tremendous stress, dysfunction and unforgiveness throughout their adulthood. Her children did not fully understand that she too was young and inexperienced to make these types of decisions but Hattie did not fully understand that her inexperience decisions would cause indecisiveness in the development of her children. A decision that Hattie made came back to haunt her years later through the decision of her daughter. Ayana Mathis takes us on a journey to generational curses and how they can greatly affect the future.
16 out of 18 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 15, 2012
I loved the book, but wished the characters would have been developed further. Did not care for the sudden ending.
16 out of 20 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 15, 2012
A very powerful first novel !!! Ayana Mathis has this incredible talent to make the reader feel every ounce of Hattie's pain and anguish... it was almost like I was Hattie and it was happening to me....
14 out of 16 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 19, 2012
If you like the type of story where everybody is miserable their entire lives and no matter what choices the different characters make then you'll like this book.
I just don't see the point to yet another book where everyone's lives turn out horribly simply because the author thinks they will get reviews with words like "riveting" or "mesmerizing" or whatever else.
The ending seemed like the author ran out of ideas and ended it abruptly.
13 out of 20 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 16, 2012
I can't even finish this book. It jumps around so much and makes no sense. I wish I had not wasted my money.
11 out of 17 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 24, 2012
It caught my attention in the begining but it Never got to the point .. miserable doomed characters and a quick pointless ending.... boooooo
9 out of 12 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 18, 2013
This is not an uplifting book and the characters are, for the most part, sad and miserable. The beginning was good and caught my attention, but after the first few pages it was not as captivating. Wish I had just taken it out of the library.
8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 25, 2012
Posted December 20, 2012
Personally, Ioved this book. Not a huge Oprah Book Club fan. This book, however, grabbed my attention and heart immediately and carried me quickly to the ending. Definite read.
7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 23, 2013
I so wanted to love this book. When will I learn that if Oprah puts her seal on it, odds are the book will be steeped in realism, which in itself is OK, but this one teased of an ending that would be redeemed by Hattie's humanity finally being explored. I didn't need happy endings or anyone being saved, but the ending was just too abrupt with Hattie.s anger and sadness ending only because she was too old and tired to hang on to them. The hours spent reinvested in reading the book feel wasted. Surely, one of the characters would have c
grown to have at least 1 happy day in their lives? If so the book doesn't even allude to one. Big downer!
6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 11, 2013
Why did I buy this book, why did I read the whole thing? I kept hoping something positive or redeeming would happen, something that would be the aha moment of investing time in reading this. It's not there. Why does Oprah recommend this book?! Is she friends with the author?
6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 17, 2012
While this book had lots of promise, it failed to deliver. The book doesn't flow smoothly. I found myself guessing who the character was. with each new chapter I would have to assume that it was one of Hatties children talking. It would skip back and forth and really didn,t flow.
6 out of 10 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2013
I absolutely loved this book. I wanted to know more about each character's story. It was almost like reading a collection of short stories.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 4, 2013
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a rare debut novel. The story is captivating from the very first page. I could not read fast enough to know what was going to happen next. I purchased the hardcover and the e-book as I was going on a trip for a few days and didn't want to miss any time I could be reading! Ms. Mathis writes like a seasoned veteran of the printed word. I truly look forward to her next work. Thank you Ms. Mathis for this special treat in fine writing.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 8, 2012
TRULY ACCOMPLISHED. PLOT HAS TO BE CONSIDERED, BUT OF COURSE HOW THE PLOT IS CARRIED OUT IS ALL IMPORTANT (GRAMMAR, CORRECT VOCABULARY. THEN TOO QUESTIONS OF HOLDING INTEREST ARE ALL IMPORTANT. THE NOVEL DOES IMMEDIATELY GAIN ATTENTION. iNDEED,OPRAH HAS PICKED WELL. BUT, NOW, LET ME ASK, WHY AND HOW ARE THE BOOKS REALLY PICKED ? THE NOVEL "CHRIS AND LOUISA" ON THE SUBJECT OF POLYGAMY, 125 YEARS OF US HISTORY AND THE RISE , WEALTH AND POWER OF MORMONISM HAS NOT BEEN SINGLED OIUT FOR OPRAH.]. THAT ISI ANOTHER AREA OF EXISTENCE OF COURSE, THE MORMON WORLD, BUT I SUPPOSE MY POINT IS THAT EXCELLENT BOOKS WRITTEN WITH CONSUMATE SKILL ARE TOO OFTEN OVERLOOKED.
OF COURSE MY WIFE, JUDY, AND i WROTE CHRIS AND LOUISA.
RALPH P. VANDER HEIDE
4 out of 23 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 10, 2013
Posted January 7, 2013
I'm really enjoying this book. You don't know what to expect with each new chapter (tribe/child of Hattie). Each chapter covers one of Hattie's children. You have to read the chapter to kind of figure out what's going on and I love that it's not predictable. It's definitely a great read for a book club.
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 5, 2013