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Book Review

‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie’


BookCourtesy of Beaverdale Books

Review by Sally Wisdom


Dec. 6, 2012



243 pp.

University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Ayana Mathis has earned well-deserved acclaim for this painful first novel. In 1923, young Hattie, along with her mother and two sisters, flees Georgia for Philadelphia, becoming part of the great migration of African-Americans seeking a better life in the north. While still in her teens, Hattie marries August Shepherd, loses her mother, watches as one sister returns to Georgia and gives birth to twins she bestows with the “reaching-forward” names Philadelphia and Jubilee. In the cold winter of 1925, Hattie loses both infants to pneumonia, setting off a cascade of tragedy that pierces the lives of Hattie, August and the nine children who follow.

August is a loving and playful father who fails to earn a living by day and drinks and womanizes by night. Hattie is a stern and joyless mother who struggles but never fails to see that her children are fed and clothed. Her children fail to recognize the fierce love behind her determination to prepare them for the hard knocks she is sure life will bring them. The tragic loss of the twins hangs like a dark cloud over the family.

The story, spanning more than a half century, is told in chapters devoted to brief periods in the lives of each of her children and one grandchild. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is not always easy to read, but the unrelenting grimness of the story is assuaged by the sheer beauty of Mathis’ writing. CV

Ayana Mathis will be in Des Moines Sunday, April 28 at 3:00 PM at the Central Library as part of the Des Moines Public Library’s AViD (Authors Visiting in Des Moines) series.

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