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Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Title: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Author: Ayana Mathis
Year Published: 2012

Genre: Adult Fiction
Pages: 243
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2014 Google Reading map): USA (Pennsylvania and Georgia)

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school's library

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): 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.

Review: The Librarian at my school gave me this book just before I left on vacation and I never even read the description before I read it! I liked it, but didn't love it. The set up--twelve chapters, each about one of Hattie's children and or another main character--reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. Hattie is in each chapter, her character growing and revealing itself to the reader as time went on (the chapters also come forward from 1923 to 1980) and as we read of her children's experiences.

While Hattie escaped from 1920s Georgia, which we see through her eyes in flashbacks and through her son Floyd, a musician, she still lives an extremely difficult life up in Philadelphia. However, this is mostly of her own making. Eleven children, no skills and therefore no real job, and a husband who is a womanizer all contribute to Hattie's negative attitude toward life. This attitude finds itself pervasive in her children and colors their experiences and interactions with their mother.

The book is not all sad and negative; there are also moments of tenderness, love, and friendship. But, honestly, they are much less frequent. I think the author did a really good job of showing the impact of family on our lives, how much we need them even when a parent isn't a great parent, and what life was like for poor people, especially Blacks, throughout the twentieth century in America.

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