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I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. Mathis has created a family, beginning in 1925 continuing through 1980, of which Hattie is the matriarch. The tribes, her 11 children and one grandchild, are revealed in single, captured episodes (chapters) reflecting a lifetime of longing and emotional neglect. On one hand Hattie is a mother who loves her children too much; yet, she doesn’t love them well.

Parents are not always infallible, and Hattie makes no apologies for her shortcomings. The first chapter, about her twins, and later that of her daughter, Rosie, are told through Hattie’s eyes; the rest of the stories are shared from her children’s perspectives. These include looks back on their childhoods and a glimpse of them as adults. No one fares well, and the question surfaces: how much is a parent’s responsibility? Except that’s not the only issue here.

Hattie and her husband, August, share the burden of poverty and heartache. Their relationship, however, is grounded more in the physical than sentimental realm. Consequently, her nine offspring struggle with everything from sexuality to religion, from addiction to mental illness. How would life had been different if Hattie’s first two children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, not died in infancy? It’s possible they would have grown up to be just as miserable as their siblings.

Mathis’s writing is the redeeming element: evocative and haunting. What she writes may be difficult to read, but how she does it is memorable.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Probably Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
243 pages

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