THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE. By Ayana Mathis. Knopf. 243 pages. $24.95.
Early in Ayana Mathis’ rich and satisfying debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” the second selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, a character looks at the sun and considers that it might be a fiery other world, “another earth just like this one, all up in flames.”
The possibility of other worlds, whether fiery or green, propels Hattie Shepherd and her nine surviving children to act on their dreams, or fears. Hattie moves from Georgia to Philadelphia; her sons, Floyd and Six, reverse the migration and discover identities down South, one as a juke joint horn player and the other as a revival preacher. Bell, one daughter, only moves to the other side of Philly, a downward relocation that takes her to what might as well be the other side of the world. Alice completes the upward version of Bell’s hometown move.
Mathis’ novel of dispersal and homecoming covers 55 years (1925-80) and three generations. She takes on the big American subjects: freedom and the threat of bondage; bona fides and imposters; faith and doubt; and, always, the rigors of hope.
“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” opens when Hattie is 17, a young wife and mother of twins whom she gives the “reaching-forward names” of Philadelphia and Jubilee. All is well in her green world. The neighborhood rings with birdsong. Black women buy flowers from a white man. No one stares at their own feet. But winter comes, and with it the illness that will kill her babies.
Mathis is a strong scene-setter. The hours Hattie spends with her dying twins in a steamy bathroom break her heart: “She called them precious. She called them light and promise and cloud.” While she holds them, Philadelphia and Jubilee die.
Jump ahead to 1948. Mathis structures her novel as a sequence of interlocking stories, each named for one or more of her surviving children and the last devoted to a granddaughter. The intersections and gaps among the narratives allow Mathis to accentuate the ways that individuals belong to communities at the same time that they remain singular and unknown to one another.
In most chapters, one of her children, like the young Hattie of the first chapter, reaches a limit of freewill. These out-of-control moments interest Mathis; here she finds the hard or soft edges of character. Floyd (known as Lady Boy Floyd for his skill with the ladies) insists he goes with women despite other urges. His story hinges on a moment of self-betrayal.
Six, who inhabits the chapter after Floyd’s, experiences his evangelical gift as a spiritual hijacking. God for him is a “violent surge he couldn’t control.” His God “doesn’t come to sit on the porch and drink lemonade. ... He doesn’t come to take the scene in. He comes to take over!”
How often Mathis places her characters in touch with powerful forces that come to take over their lives! Despite its setting during the Great Migration and the years after, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” doesn’t have much to say about the racial politics of the era. Hattie and her children are overtaken more often by their own hearts and bodies than by social strictures.
Though Hattie isn’t the center of every story, thoughts of her enter each narrative. In the early years after her babies die, she floats through the house like a ghost. Later, she charges through it like a train. Hattie’s love is both right there and just out of reach. She may keep her “tribes” alive with “sheer will and collard greens,” but she stunts them, too, with her broken desires.
Mathis’ multilayered novel is most moving when Hattie reaches toward lost hope. Early in the novel, she has an affair and runs away with her lover and baby Ruthie to Baltimore, a heartbreaking story and one that reverberates in the lives of her children. In several of the stories, Mathis alludes to a passage in the book of Job: “Yet man is born in trouble, as the sparks fly upward” — a verse that makes Hattie feel she’s not alone. In Mathis’ hands, a feeling can be as momentous as an action.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.