Weekend reading: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie


Hmm, somehow it doesn’t seem the same, taking a picture of a book cover on an iPad screen — one of the drawbacks of not actually having the book. Oh well.

Started this book yesterday afternoon after I’ve finished reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s newest Anita Blake novel, Affliction (more on this in a future post). I heard so much praise about Ayana Mathis’ novel that I had to read for myself to see if it’s worth reading. And it is. First chapter and Mathis already rips your heart out and stomps it good.

Barebones synopsis of the book: The story opens in 1925 with Hattie, a 16-year old black (“negro”, given the time frame at the start of the novel), giving her twin babies mustard poultices and ipecac to try to cure them from their worsening pneumonia. Because she’s young and poor and it’s winter, her babies die. Hattie never recovers from the loss, and it changed her in ways that we only read about indirectly, as each chapter is told from the point of view of her children (12 — as in, of course, the 12 tribes of Israel) and grandchild through the decades.

Mathis deftly tells Hattie’s and her children’s stories, interweaving and interconnecting their lives — from one son’s confused sexual identity, to another’s great anger, to one daughter’s sickness — the stories are full of pathos and are unflinchingly told. This is a debut novel, so there are moments of melodrama and some of the characters (especially the men) are not as sharply drawn, but the book sings. I am only inching towards the halfway point and even though I usually can’t devour books that are just so so sad and tragic, so easily, this has been an easy read. Maybe because we’ve all been in that dark place where we’ve been stuck and don’t know how to extricate ourselves.

“Hattie took a deep breath. ‘When I was a little girl, my father took us to see some of his people near Savannah,’ she said. ‘We went to a little bitty strip of rocky beach they had for Negroes. Mama wouldn’t let us swim, but she went off to do something and I lifted my skirt and ran into the water.’

“Hattie cupped Ruthie’s dimpled knee in her palm.

‘My cousin Coleman came up behind me and splashed water all over my dress. He knew how to swim, so he went off doing tricks. He floated on his back and spit water straight up like a fountain, and he dove down so all I could see where his legs poking out of the water like little brown sticks. Then he was floating with his arms out to his sides and his head bobbing just above the surface. I was so delighted! It was like he was pressing himself on the water to heave himself up and then he’d disappear again. He kept doing that and it was so funny, but then he went under and didn’t come up anymore. I stood in the shallow part waiting for him to pop up and make crab claws at me, but he never did. All of a sudden everybody was screaming and running. I looked back at the shore, and Mama was holding Coleman’s mother so she wouldn’t go after him. I came out and stood on the beach. A while later, a man came out of the water carrying Coleman and I knew he was drowned.’

‘Drowning doesn’t look how you think it would. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?’ Hattie looked over at Lawrence. ‘I told you this morning, I said I couldn’t be a fool twice.’

‘Nobody’s drowning, Hattie. I’m here helping you.’

‘Helping me? It isn’t help I need, Lawrence. It’s a safe port in a storm.'” — excerpt from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis

“Safe port in the storm” — aren’t we all looking for that, too?

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My name is Terrie. I write for a living and blog for pleasure. Some days, I get up in the morning and know precisely what kind of day it is. At other times, I get knocked over for a loop. People seem to like confiding in me. When I was younger, I thought I knew everything and can tell you what you need to do if you ask me. Now that I'm older, I realize I don't know anything. That's been my motivation for the blog and for writing. To figure out the unknown and unknowable.

One thought on “Weekend reading: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

  1. Hey thanks for that. I always enjoy your reviews. Your description of the Filipina Nanny paradigm is spot on.

    As for pity upon the struggling Singaporean family, too bad that won’t be recieved by the SG monied class……………..they are too busy being busy. No doubt it happens all over the rock.

    Wish I could see the movie here.



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