There are many books on my To Read list that find their way on simply because I see them enough places and become intrigued. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis was one of those books. It seemed to be everywhere a year or so back and had a terribly long wait list at the library. The only problem with books like that is I tend to let my expectations get built up too much. The longer I wait to read a book I’m really looking forward to, the less likely I am to be satisfied with it.
Hattie Shepherd is a black girl raised in Georgia in the early twentieth century. She, her mother, and her sisters move north to Philadelphia when she is only fifteen. In a few short years, she meets and marries August and begins what seems to be her lot in life, birthing and raising children. Eventually giving birth to eleven children, the challenges and trials of raising them in the north with few resources and a husband determined to squander what little they do have comprise the tales in the novel. Focusing on a child or two at a time, the reader sees Hattie from many different angles and at vastly different periods in her life.
While the concept behind the characters and the structure were exciting, the execution wasn’t what I’d been hoping for or expecting. It wasn’t that the patterns of misfortune/struggle were unrealistic in their repetition, it’s that they were boring in their repetition. I found it difficult to get a hold on the characters’ personalities and so it was difficult to sympathize with them. Hattie was both the most solid and the most elusive but that was one of the aspects of the novel that did work for me. The first chapter, “Philadelphia and Jubilee: 1925” was the one I found most compelling, which might be part of why I had difficulties making my way through the rest (I did enjoy the “Bell: 1975” chapter as well).
Despite each of her children having a chapter where they were arguably the focus, it feels like there are so many more. I actually had to go back and count to be sure they did each have or shared a chapter. There’s little development of the sibling relationships and even Hattie is only a peripheral presence in many of them. The strings that bind the tales together are there but they’re pretty flimsy and the stories themselves aren’t strong or compelling enough to truly stand alone, making the book an awkward conglomeration of misery and perseverance that fails to inspire (or at least, I failed to find it inspiring; it became more of a chore, a test of my own perseverance and testing my belief that maybe it would get better).
Even though the years are given as part of the chapter titles, there is little engaging with the larger African-American community or references to larger events. There are religious and revival threads, a bit about the Vietnam War in Franklin’s chapter, but little about the larger Civil Rights movement or its impact on these characters. It’s remarkable how self-contained, isolated, and disconnected the characters and their stories felt. It does speak well to the different expressions of maternal love – the struggle to keep children alive against adversity as opposed to the soft, openly affectionate mothering that most people picture. But I found even this intriguing subject to be disappointingly underdeveloped.