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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Cover of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
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“A remarkable page-turner of a novel.” —Chicago TribuneIn 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of...
“A remarkable page-turner of a novel.” —Chicago TribuneIn 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of...
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  • “A remarkable page-turner of a novel.” —Chicago Tribune

    In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of hope, she settles in Philadelphia to build a better life. Instead she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment, and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins are lost to an illness that a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children, whom she raises with grit, mettle, and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them to meet a world that will not be kind. Their lives, captured here in twelve luminous threads, tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage—and a nation's tumultuous journey.
    New York Times Notable Book
    An NPR Best Book of the Year
    A Buzzfeed Best Book of the Year

    An Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection
 

Awards-

Excerpts-

  • From the book Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


    Ruthie
    1951

    Lawrence had just given the last of his money to the numbers man when Hattie called him from a public telephone a few blocks from her house on Wayne Street. Her voice was just audible over the street traffic and the baby's high wail. "It's Hattie," she said, as though he would not recognize her voice. And then, "Ruthie and I left home." Lawrence thought for a moment that she meant she had a free hour unexpectedly, and he might come and meet them at the park where they usually saw each other.

    "No," she'd said. "I packed my things. We can't . . . we're not going back."

    They met an hour later at a diner on Germantown Avenue. The lunch rush was over, and Hattie was the lone customer. She sat with Ruthie propped in her lap, a menu closed on the table in front of her. Hattie did not look up as Lawrence approached. He had the impression that she'd seen him walk in and had turned her head so as not to appear to be looking for him. A cloth satchel sat on the floor next to her: embroidered, somber hued, faded. A bit of white fabric stuck up through the latch. He felt a rush of tenderness at the sight of the bag flopping on the linoleum.

    Lawrence lifted the satchel onto the seat as he slid into the booth. He reached across and tickled Ruthie's cheek with his finger. He and Hattie had never discussed a future seriously. Oh, there had been plenty of sighs and wishes in the afternoon hours after they made love: they had invented an entire life out of what-ifs and wouldn't-it-be-nices. He looked at her now and realized their daydreams were more real to him than he'd allowed himself to believe.

    Lawrence wasn't a man who got hung up on ideals or lofty sentiment; he had lived pragmatically as far as his emotions were concerned. He had a car and nice suits, and he had only infrequently worked for white men. He left his family behind in Baltimore when he was sixteen, and he had built himself up from nothing without any help from anyone. And if he had not been able to save his mother from becoming a mule, at least he had never been one himself. For most of his life, this had seemed like the most important thing, not to be anybody's mule. Then Hattie came along with all of those children, that multitude of children, and she didn't have a mark of them on her. She spoke like she'd gone to one of those finishing schools for society Negro girls that they have down south. It was as though she'd been dropped into a life of squalor and indignities that should not have been hers. With such a woman, if he would only try a bit harder, he might become a family man. It is true that he had not met Hattie's children, but their names— Billups and Six and Bell— were seductive as the names of foreign cities. In his imagination they were not so much children as they were small docile copies of Hattie.

    "What happened?" he asked Hattie. Ruthie kicked at her swaddling. She looked very like him. The old wives' tale says babies look like their fathers when they are new to the world. Ruthie was light-skinned like him and Hattie, lighter than August. Of course, Lawrence had not seen Hattie's other children and could not know that most of them were this same milky tea color.

    "Did August put his hands on you?" Lawrence asked.

    "He's not that kind of man," she answered sharply.

    "Anybody is, if his manhood is wounded enough."

    Hattie looked at him in alarm.

    "A lot of men, I mean," Lawrence said.

    Hattie turned her face to the window. She would need money—that was certain—and they would be able to spend more time together now that...

About the Author-

  • Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is her first novel.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from October 15, 2012
    Mathis’s remarkable debut traces the life of Hattie Shepherd through the eyes of her offspring, depicting a family whose members are distant, fiercely proud, and desperate for connection with their mother. When 16-year-old Hattie’s newborn twins, her first with husband August, die from pneumonia in the winter of 1925, it is a devastation that will disfigure her for the rest of her life. As the novel moves from closeted musician Floyd’s fearful attempt to love another man in 1948, to Six’s flight to Alabama two years later after beating a boy nearly to death, Alice’s rift with her brother Billups in the late 1960s, consumptive Bell’s aborted suicide in 1975, and Cassie’s descent into schizophrenia in the early 1980s, what ties these lives together is a longing for tenderness from the mother they call the General. Strong, angry Hattie despairs as August, an ineffectual though affectionate father, reveals himself to be a womanizer who is incapable of supporting the family. Hattie finds happiness with Lawrence, a gambler; after having his baby, Hattie leaves August and her other children and goes with Lawrence to Baltimore, but returns to the house on Wayne Street, in Philadelphia, almost immediately. Sick with longing for her dead twins and all that her children will never have, Hattie retreats into coldness. As her children age, they come to terms with their intense need for and resentment of the mother who kept them alive but starved their hearts, while Hattie faces a choice between anger and peace. Mathis weaves this story with confidence, proving herself a gifted and powerful writer. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group.

  • The New York Times "Astonishingly powerful. . . . Ms. Mathis gives us a haunting--and, yes, hopeful--glimpse of the possibility of redemption and the resilience of the human spirit."
  • Chicago Tribune "A remarkable page-turner of a novel . . . spans decades and covers dreams lost, found and denied."
  • The Washington Post "Enthralling. . . . One remarkably resilient woman is placed against the hopes and struggles of millions of African Americans who held this nation to its promise."
  • The Boston Globe "Captivate[s] from the first pages. . . . As certainly as August Wilson did in the plays of his twentieth-century cycle, Mathis is chronicling our nation."
  • The New York Times Book Review "Raw and intimate. . . . Gracefully told. . . . Deeply felt. . . . Compelling."
  • Oprah Winfrey "The opening pages of Ayana's debut took my breath away. I can't remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison."
  • Salon "A triumph. . . . Magnificently structured, and a sentence-by-sentence treasure--lyric, direct, and true."
  • Huffington Post "A dazzling debut, rich in language and psychological insight. . . . Mathis's characters are those rarest of fictional creations: real living, breathing people."
  • Vogue "An intimate, often lyrical daisy-chain of stories. . . . We feel the exhilaration of starting over, the basic human need to belong, and the inexorable pull back to a place that, for better and worse, you call home."
  • Entertainment Weekly "Like Toni Morrison, the author has a gift for showing just how heavily history weighs on families."
  • The Seattle Times "Stunningly good. . . . Blazes fearlessly into the darkness of divided spirits and hungry hearts."
  • Newsday "Accomplished storytelling. . . . This brutal, illuminating version of the twentieth century African-American experience belongs alongside those of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston."
  • The Plain Dealer "Hypnotic. . . . In this evocative, ambitious novel, the tragedy is biblical, the reckoning stretches over generations, and a gravitas is granted to otherwise-invisible women and men."
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Beautifully imagined and elegantly written. . . . Ayana Mathis is a hugely talented writer who has authored a wise and ambitious first novel."
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Visceral, heart-wrenching. . . . An exceptional first novel."
  • The Guardian (London) "Written with elegance and remarkable poise. . . . [A novel] as much about our need for joy as it is about our struggles against bitterness."
  • The Toronto Star "Astonishing. . . . Sounds a depth charge into a character's life, a charge so powerful we forget we're reading, we forget the long history of African-Americans in the twentieth century has already been told. We are simply with someone, on a journey, that began long ago and has one determined, sometimes deranged source. Her name is Hattie Shepherd and it's a name you'll hear a lot of in years to come."
  • National Post "Glistens with a quiet, hopeful beauty. . . . This book is a powerful ode to romantic and familial love."
  • The Times (London) "Tough, truthful, wonderfully controlled writing. . . . This fresh, powerful first novel turns the lives of Hattie's children into an epic of America in the twentieth century."
  • Daily Mail "An impressive debut: tender, tough and unflinching."
  • Marilynne Robinson "Vibrant and compassionate. . . . The characters are full of life, mingled thing that it is, and dignified by the writer's judicious tenderness towards them. This first novel is a work of rare maturity."
  • Paul Harding "Beautiful and necessary from the very first sentence. The human lives it renders are on every page lowdown and glorious, fallen and redeemed, and all at the same time. They would be too heartbreaking to follow, in fact, were they not observed in such a generous and artful spirit of hope, in a spirit of mercy, in the spirit of love."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred) "Remarkable. . . .Mathis weaves this story with confidence, proving herself a gifted and powerful writer."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred) "An excellent debut. . . . Appealingly earthbound and plainspoken, and the book's structure is ingenious."
  • Booklist (starred) "Stunning. . . . Mathis writes with blazing insight into the complexities of sexuality, marriage, family relationships, backbone, fraudulence, and racism in a molten novel of lives racked with suffering yet suffused with beauty."

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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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