The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

From Goodreads: 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.


The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis was one of my most anticipated reads of 2013 – until publication was pushed up to December 2012 (after being chosen for Oprah’s book club). I’m happy the author is getting the publicity that goes along with Oprah, but I otherwise try to avoid Oprah’s book club picks. She and I have a volatile reading history together.

The first chapter of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has one of the most haunting and heartbreaking beginnings that I’ve read in recent memory. The raw emotion describing the death of her twins will stick with me well into the future. Naturally, the event changes Hattie, but it also changes the future of her unborn children. The love and affection she could have given her children is buried under the pain and necessity of everyday needs.

Each chapter is dedicated to one or two of Hattie’s children at some point in their life. The novel could almost work as a series of short stories as each chapter has its own distinct voice and rhythm. However, when weaved together, the stories create a beautiful, but melancholy novel. In the chapters told from her children’s perspective, we see Hattie through their eyes – harsh, difficult, and disappointed. Hattie loves her children, but also realizes that love and affection do not feed or cloth or prepare her children for the harsh realities of the world.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie* tells the memorable story of a mother’s love in unconventional, intimate, and unyielding form. This is not a novel to be taken lightly; it is one that needs a bit of rumination. So while I typically avoid Oprah’s book, I’m glad this was chosen – it needs that added discussion to absorb the full weight of Hattie’s afflictions. A notable debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will break your heart, but give you hope – and illuminate the harsh realities of poverty, racism, and unmet expectations. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth it. 4/5.

Favorite line: “Maybe we have only a finite amount of love to give. We’re born with our portion, and if we love and are not loved enough in return, it’s depleted.”

*I received this novel in exchange for an honest review.


To go with this novel (and you know I can’t pass by the opportunity to recommend dessert): Strawberry Mousse Cake from Southern Living.

Goodreads/Iain Bagwell

20 thoughts on “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

    1. This book was very well written, but I can’t say I LIKED it. It is sad, depressing, and while I certainly don’t need happily ever after – this one was a bit too much for me.

      My history with Oprah books is hit or miss. Hit: White Oleander, Middlesex. Miss: Gap Creek, The Pilot’s Wife.

      In general my one big complaint with literary fiction is the pain it insists on inflicting on the likely already long suffering main characters. Of course, my complaint with YA is: instalove. Can’t they meet somewhere in the middle? 🙂


      1. Classics are good. A generally positive resolution with a fair amount of conflict before said resolution. Occasionally things are a bit too convenient (like Jane Eyre happening to be related to the Rivers – still my favorite though), but they are safe enough.

        You might be happy to know that I bought American Gods. I’ll be reading it soon (January was a big review month for me, but February is looking rather barren). Perhaps for Valentine’s Day? Nothing says love like your spouse dying before you’re released from prison…


      2. You mean to tell me Lavinia posting a letter hours before she died, Mr. Swire receiving it and still including Matthew in the will, and the other two heirs dying BEFORE Mr. Swire – all so Downton Abbey could be saved by his previously unknown fortune was overly convenient?

        Perhaps, but just a tad.


      3. ROFLOL! YES husband and I cracked up over that! Also Daisy just happening to be there to witness the letter being posted and to confirm it to Matthew! There was eye rolling galore!!!


    1. Might depend on whether you ask the 2001 or the 2010 Jonathan Franzen.

      Also, I bought Naked and on my receipt it listed other suggested other authors I might like. One suggestion was Chuck Palahniuk…? I read Haunted and I can’t say that like would be the word I’d use to describe my reaction.


      1. Just curious how similar they actually are as writers…

        Though now that I’ve started reading it (my other book is a bit irritating), I’m not as curious. Aside from Haunted, I’ve only read his non-fiction.


    1. Doesn’t it? I usually try to make the food I suggest, but I skipped this one since strawberries are out of season. I’m going to have to try it next summer.

      If you’re feeling a little too happy or good about life, give the book a try. It’ll solve that in no time.


  1. I wanted to come back to this post to let you know that this book got voted as our next book club read. I gave it a “yes” based on your review. I would have read it myself had it not been selected. I too thought I was “over” the Oprah books but this one sounds interesting albiet sad.


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