Bookworm: 'The Twelve Tribes of Hattie'

In The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis traces the discord in the lives of the children of a harried mother.

You’ve always tried to do the best for your family.


You make sure everyone’s fed nutritious food three times a day. You put clothes on their bodies, bubbles in their baths and a soft bed beneath them every night. There are toys on the floor, a few dollars in the bank, holidays are all good – and you do your best to make sure it stays that way.

But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just go bad. That’s when, as in the new novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, doing your best just isn’t good enough.

Floyd always thought of himself as the oldest Shepherd child, even though the twins came before him. His mother, Hattie, never forgot about her dead babies and as a result, Floyd and his siblings grew up in a suffocating house. That was a good reason to leave home as soon as he could. Why he felt a strong pull toward loving young men – well, he couldn’t answer that.

Just 15, Six wondered if he had somehow inherited his mother’s temper. People thought he was a quiet child; poor Six with scars from that long-ago accident. What they didn’t know was that the accident charred more than just his skin: he burned with fire enough to beat another boy near to death, and he burned with the Holy Spirit.

Growing up, Alice was like a mother to her own brothers and sisters. It almost had to be that way; their father, August, was always away, and Hattie had her hands full with babies. Alice had a particularly soft spot for her brother Billup, and she promised to take special care of him for life.

Billup didn’t need Alice, and he told her so. She didn’t need to protect him any more. She wasn’t the one who was molested, anyhow.

And there were always more babies. Ruthie, who was the child of another man. Ella, whom Hattie gave away. Bell, always on the outside.

And then there was Sala, the child Hattie could do right by.

The child she could save. The child who could save her.

Who can resist a book that starts out sweet, quickly turns tragic, gives you hope and then – well, not me. That’s why I loved The Twelve Tribes of Hattie so much.

Mathis doesn’t bother to tug on our heartstrings in this book. No, she rips at them with this story of a woman who holds her hurts close and, in doing so, makes her pain echo through several decades.

Where this book shines is in Mathis’ character development: it’s oh-so-very easy to forget that the people aren’t real. You’ll squirm at some of the troubles here. For sure, there are parts of this book that will make you breathless.

Be aware that you might want a tissue for parts of this novel.

Be aware that you won’t be able to put this book down.