Rated Reads

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

by Ayana Mathis

Rated: High

In my experience, Oprah has consistently picked “downers” for all of her book club selections. They are full of tragedy, heartbreak and unspeakable horrors. Not just that, but the characters and the stories have little hope, and I rarely find the stories to be inspiring or great testaments to the strength of human character, despite what Oprah or the book jackets proclaim.

I was interested to read her latest selection, though, because it relates to the Great Migration of blacks out of the South and into the North and other areas of the country during the early and mid-20th century. I so thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the nonfiction work on the topic, The Warmth of Other Suns, that I was intrigued by the possibilities this fictional book offered.

Unfortunately, yet again, I just found another book full of tragedy, unkindness, baseness and very little love or warmth or hope. The jacket says it’s “an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit,” but honestly, I just did not see that.

The titular Hattie leaves Georgia in 1923 with her mother and sisters at age 15 to move to Philadelphia after her father was killed by whites. She almost immediately meets a man who impregnates her; she marries him and gives birth to twins, followed by nine more children. He runs around with other women and doesn’t provide for their family, and Hattie scrapes by, by sheer will just getting most of her children raised to adulthood. The death of the twins, however, scars her emotionally for her whole life. And her husband is “her ruin.”

Each chapter in the book basically follows the story of one child, showing how each turns out and the feelings they have about their tough mother. Every single story is heartbreaking and tragic, and almost every child is profoundly unhappy, thanks to their own bad decisions in life. Some blame their mother; some have moved past their feelings about her. Either way, they’re still miserable.

There is a small bit of hope in the very last story, but it essentially takes up the space of one page. Hattie is able to finally change in how she relates to her offspring; it doesn’t help the second generation very much, but we hope it will make a difference for the third.

Rated: High. There are a little more than 20 uses of strong language, primarily in one character’s narrative, and some coarse sexual scenes. One son is struggling with an attraction to men, and reading his story just left me feeling icky. While there aren’t many details, the tone and some of the scenes are overall base and vulgar. There are some instances of adultery and sexual abuse.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
  • by Ayana Mathis
  • Rated: High
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: