Book Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

twelve tribes

Rating: 3 / 5

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie details Hattie’s life through the story of her children. The novel starts off with a bang, the tragedy of Hattie’s first children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Each chapter focus on one of Hattie’s children, and it reads more like a collection of short stories rather than one novel.

Although I enjoyed Mathis’s storytelling, the chapters felt disjointed and incongruous. Some children were more compelling than others, but by the end of the book, I had forgotten the story of most of Hattie’s children.  I understand the loss referenced earlier had a profound and significant effect on Hattie, but I felt like I never got to know her personally since Hattie basically kept herself at arm’s distance from all her children.  The children were either too young to have coherent thoughts (so the reader learns about Hattie through her actions) or were already grown (so the reader learns about Hattie through the child’s recollection).  Although the approach seems novel (I have yet to read a novel with this kind of structure), I never found out what made Hattie tick, and none of the children seemed to have the relationship necessary to understand their mother.

I found it hard to understand how the children do not relate to each other; it was as though each child lived in isolation from his/her siblings. With only a two bedroom house, there should have been more sibling interaction and I would have loved to read about the various dynamics.  None of the characters were fully developed; instead we are given a sliver of each child’s life.  Just when I was getting interested in one story, it abruptly ended and another story began.  However, it did not pick up where the last story left ended, so many times I was left wondering what happened to the time in between and what happened to last child I read about.

The ending was also unfulfilling.  I am not of the opinion that every book must end with rainbows and unicorns, but some kind of closure was needed.  None of the stories or relationships resolved by the end of the book, and none of the stories (outside of Philadelphia and Jubilee) finished, so I turned the last page feeling a bit empty.

I enjoyed Mathis’s writing, so much so that I wished she had fully developed the lives of Hattie’s children.  The meaningful thought I was left with after reading The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was that being physically removed from oppression does not necessarily remove the feeling of being oppressed. What a powerful theme that ended up being for this book.

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