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

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