Book Review: The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Book: The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Published December 2012 by Knopf|243 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: Adult Fiction

A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family. 

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, Mathis’s first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

I wasn’t as into this book as I thought I would be.  It seemed like it would be interesting, but I found the book to be cold and distant.

Considering the book is about Hattie’s children, you’d think she would have more of a role.  But she didn’t.  I got the impression that her kids didn’t have a lot of contact with her once they were adults, and that she was a cold, uncaring woman.

It felt more like a collection of short stories of people than a cohesive story told over decades.  Maybe even a series of stories connected by one or two characters.  There are a lot of time jumps and narrators, and while it worked for Homegoing and You Bring The Distant Near, it didn’t work for The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie.  I felt like her children were introduced and then abandoned- we were lucky if they were even mentioned again, and while we see Hattie throughout the book, it is from a distance.

And while you see the heartache and struggles each character goes through, it felt flat and one-dimensional.  There wasn’t anything to make me really care or feel invested in their stories.  She did do well with painting a picture of how oppressed Hattie’s family felt, and how she really seems to understand people who had limited options, and how much those limited options changed them.  I don’t necessarily need to like or relate to a character in order to like a book, but I found that I didn’t care about these characters or what happened to them.

1 star.  I couldn’t get into the book at all, and the structure didn’t work well for this story.

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