The saga of Hattie Shepherd, an African American who leaves Georgia in 1925 in pursuit of the American dream in Philadelphia, may sound as if it would be made of common elements. But the talent of her creator, first-time novelist Ayana Mathis, is uncommon, as the opening pages of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie—an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection—make clear.
Her preacher in Georgia declared the North to be “a New Jerusalem,” but Hattie’s long road of trouble and travail over six decades begins very soon after she arrives in Philadelphia, where her twin babies become desperately ill. “She pressed her cheeks to the tops of their heads. Oh, their velvet skin! She felt their deaths like a ripping in her body.”
Out of fear that her nine later children and her grandchildren will fail to survive in a world of hatred and poverty, Hattie becomes a hard, demanding woman. Mathis dramatically shows this shift through the perspectives of 12 different characters. The author’s electric style is both tough and compassionate, creating almost unbearably poignant moments.
Mathis moves the reader from Hattie’s perspective to the story of her grown son Floyd, a horn player, 23 years later. Then the focus shifts to Six, a preacher; then to the child Ruthie; and on to eight more of Hattie’s descendants. But Hattie is a vibrant participant in the drama of each separate narrative. In fact, the dialogue throughout is achingly real. This is a novel of distinctive and haunting voices that yearn for love.
The Promised Land of the North fails Hattie and her family. What succeeds is the culture of a people, of a family, that has struggled to endure.