The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Ayana Mathis. Knopf, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-385-35028-0
Mathis’s remarkable debut traces the life of Hattie Shepherd through the eyes of her offspring, depicting a family whose members are distant, fiercely proud, and desperate for connection with their mother. When 16-year-old Hattie’s newborn twins, her first with husband August, die from pneumonia in the winter of 1925, it is a devastation that will disfigure her for the rest of her life. As the novel moves from closeted musician Floyd’s fearful attempt to love another man in 1948, to Six’s flight to Alabama two years later after beating a boy nearly to death, Alice’s rift with her brother Billups in the late 1960s, consumptive Bell’s aborted suicide in 1975, and Cassie’s descent into schizophrenia in the early 1980s, what ties these lives together is a longing for tenderness from the mother they call the General. Strong, angry Hattie despairs as August, an ineffectual though affectionate father, reveals himself to be a womanizer who is incapable of supporting the family. Hattie finds happiness with Lawrence, a gambler; after having his baby, Hattie leaves August and her other children and goes with Lawrence to Baltimore, but returns to the house on Wayne Street, in Philadelphia, almost immediately. Sick with longing for her dead twins and all that her children will never have, Hattie retreats into coldness. As her children age, they come to terms with their intense need for and resentment of the mother who kept them alive but starved their hearts, while Hattie faces a choice between anger and peace. Mathis weaves this story with confidence, proving herself a gifted and powerful writer. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 10/15/2012
Release date: 01/15/2013
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