'The Twelve Tribes of Hattie': a wise and ambitious debut

Anointed by Oprah, first-time novelist tells a complex tale of the Great Migration

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Certainly there are writers out there who have never dreamed of being plucked from obscurity by Oprah Winfrey. But I'm guessing it feels pretty good to be Ayana Mathis right now. At 39, Mathis has just had her first-ever published work of fiction, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie," chosen to be the second book in Oprah's Book Club 2.0.

Since her selection, Ms. Mathis has seen her publication date moved up from January to get her book into bookstores faster; her initial printing has grown from 50,000 to 125,000 copies; and she has taped a segment with Oprah to air on Oprah's OWN network sometime in February.

Not bad for a rookie. And while, to me, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" doesn't quite rise to the level of Oprah's gushing, I do agree that Ayana Mathis is a hugely talented writer who has authored a wise and ambitious first novel.

It is 1925 when we first encounter 16-year-old Hattie Shepherd. Hattie was all of 14 when she, her sisters, and her mother joined the wave of the more than 1.5 million African-Americans who fled the Jim Crow, Klan-riddled South for the North in the early 1900s as part of the "Great Migration." Arriving in Philadelphia, she steps outside the train station and encounters a bustling street scene unlike anything she's ever seen before:


By Ayana Mathis.
Knopf ($24.95).

"The Negroes did not step into the gutters to let the whites pass and they did not stare doggedly at their own feet. Four Negro girls walked by, teenagers like Hattie, chatting to one another. Just girls in conversation, giggling and easy, the way only white girls walked and talked in the city streets of Georgia."

Two years later, her mother is dead, her sisters are both gone, and she is a young newlywed fighting for the lives of her two sickly 7-month-old twins in her newly adopted hometown. These two infants, the optimistically named Philadelphia and Jubilee, are the first of her 11 children and the one grandchild who ultimately make up her "Twelve Tribes."

Much like the biblical descendants of Jacob -- the so-called 12 Tribes of Israel who scatter and populate a new land -- Hattie's children, in their own way, scatter, too, in the promised land of the North. And it is through their stories, told in succeeding chapters across a span stretching from 1925 to 1980, that a bleak landscape emerges of disappointment and promises not kept.

These are not happy stories but they are beautifully imagined and elegantly written, revealing complex and supremely human characters trying to make their way in the years between the Great Migration and the push for civil rights. Ms. Mathis has a knack for capturing and distilling a place and a moment in time. So it is that she is able to move from one story to the next, from the son who returns to the Jim Crow South as an itinerant musician wrestling with his homosexuality, to the daughter laid low by tuberculosis, among other afflictions, to the son who stands watch on a beach in Vietnam, at war with his own demons.

Paradoxically, though, one of the strengths of the novel also feels to me like its weakness. While Ms. Mathis has created this vast canvas, like a canvas it feels somewhat two-dimensional. You can look at the surface of the thing but you can't dive deep and get lost in it. Having come to the book without knowing much about it, I was maybe three chapters in when I realized I wouldn't see most of these characters again -- that each character had his or her own chapter and, apart from Hattie and her husband August, I would see the rest again only peripherally, if at all.

That was frustrating. I felt like I was skimming along the surface of one great story after another, each of them linked together by familial threads, but still, I was only skimming. And while I respect the author's decision to opt for the bigger picture -- to tell the many stories versus the one or two, and in that way to achieve a certain bigness of scope -- something is lost with that choice. We learn a lot about Hattie and her husband which is certainly satisfying, but the book doesn't offer the pleasure of immersion the way the best novels (and even some lousy ones) do. What it does, it does beautifully, but it left me wanting more.

That said, to borrow a line from the Oprah vernacular, here's one thing I know for sure: "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" marks the emergence of an enormously gifted new writer in Ayana Mathis. I, for one, look forward to seeing what comes next.


Judy Wertheimer is a writer living in Squirrel Hill (wertheimer.jb@gmail.com). First Published December 16, 2012 5:00 AM


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