” Look how Hattie was holding her—as if Ruthie were just anybody, just any baby that needed holding. What if, he thought, Hattie couldn’t love any more children? Maybe we have only a finite amount of love to give. We’re born with our portion, and if we love and are not loved enough in return, it’s depleted. ” (Ruthie 1951, p.124)
Spanning six decades, from 1925 to 1980s, Mathis’s debut novel is a tense, multi-layered family saga with its titular character, Hattie Shepherd, at the very center. When she was 15, she took a train from Georgia with her mother and sisters to Philadelphia, a city that represented freedom and hope impossible in the Jim Crow South. In less than two years Hattie was married, and she and her husband, August, have twins, who later come down with pneumonia in winter 1925, and for lack of proper medication, and the failure of the house furnace, die “in the order in which they were born: first Philadelphia, then Jubilee.” (Philadelphia and Jubilee 1925, p.16) The couple eventually have four more sons and five more daughters—each of whom takes turn at the narrative to weave together a complex story of family ties over time.
Even now, poor as she was crammed in that house with all those children, by all accounts Hattie was as proud as she had been when they were girls in Georgia and their father was the only Negro business owner in town. Likely, even the dole hadn’t broken her . . . Hattie had married the wrong man and she had failed. (Ella 1954, p.173)
Hattie and August never recover from the death of their firstborns. While Hattie struggles to make ends meet and grows increasingly bitter and angry, August spends the evenings drinking and seeing other women, frittering away their savings. Mathis truly conjures the lives of the Shepherd family with psychological precision. Hattie is not an object of affection, and she knows her children did not think her a kind woman, but she fights to keep them alive because life has to go on. All the love she has given has been spent feeding, clothing, and protecting them. Her toughness is seen by her children as ferocity and coldness.
At the time Bell had not recognized this as love. Now, as her mother advanced toward the door to the room, her arm outstretched as if to turn the knob and enter, she wore the same stern expression. Bell saw the tenderness in it—Hattie’s tenderness, which was always hard. (Bell 1975, p.287)
As bleak as the emotional impoverishment and loss might seem, the novel also moves toward a sense of hope and reconciliation. Hattie has sustained loss but bite the bullet to make life more livable. A son sustained a severe burn. Another son fights in Vietnam. A gay son who becomes a famous musician. A daughter who seeks revenge on her by fornicating with Hattie’s ex-lover. A daughter who is schizophrenic. A daughter stuck in a loveless marriage with a rich husband. A daughter whom she almost gave away. Despite the disparate lives they all somehow retrace their parents’ life patterns but come to terms of Hattie’s unspoken love.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a powerful novel about motherhood and life itself. On top of all the afflictions and loss to which she is subjected, Hattie demonstrates invincible will. Mathis, in language so elegant, lyrical and rigid, gives reader a glimpse of redemption and resilience of the human spirit.
330 pp. Windmill Books/ Random House UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]