The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the story of Hattie Shepherd who moves from Georgia to Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration. Her story spans many decades, from the 1920s to the 1980s.
Aged 17, Hattie’s story begins with the death of her twin babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee. Hattie’s disappointments in life have just begun, but the death of her first children will cast a shadow over most of what happens afterwards. Her husband cheats and squanders their money which leaves her and the long row of children they have together in poverty. The rest of the story is told through the alternating viewpoints in which these children usually take the lead. Most of them face difficulties in live, and they often remember their strong, but mostly unloving mother, during these episodes. While most of the story actually is not told from Hattie’s point of view, and is usually removed from the direct domestic sphere of Hattie’s household, this novel consisting of 10 chapters all seemingly telling a different but intertwined story in the end all revolve around Hattie in some way or other.
However, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is more than a story about one family and ultimately the lasting impact of one mother. It is packed with larger themes such as a returning reflection on the nature of the US south:
“He thought of the South as a single undifferentiated mass of states where the people talked too slow, like August, and left because of the whites, only to spend the rest of their lives being nostalgic for the most banal and backwoods things: paper shell pecans, sweet gum trees, gigantic peaches.”
And a commentary on religious belief. Religion recurs in the stories of Hattie’s children, but in the end also appears in the final pages as a metaphor, or perhaps as commentary, on her broader outlook on life, while also posing the question if Hattie’s individual life could be read as the lives of many women of the great immigration:
“She had been angry with her children, and with August, who’d brought her nothing but disappointment. Fate had plucked Hattie out of Georgia to birth eleven children and establish them in the North, but she was only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given. No one could tell her why things had turned out the way they had, not August or the pastor or God himself. Hattie believed in God’s might, but she didn’t believe in his interventions. At best, he was indifferent. God wasn’t any of her business, and she wasn’t any of his. In church on Sundays she looked around the sanctuary and wondered if anyone else felt the way she did, if anyone else was there because they believed in the ritual and the hymn singing and good preaching more than they believed in a responsive, sympathetic God.”
The thing is, perhaps I like the idea of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie better than its execution. The alternating viewpoints sometimes almost lead you to believe that you are reading ten different stories that are not altogether a coherent whole. The family tree becomes somewhat confusing sometimes. The fact that as a reader you only see episodes from each of these lives sometimes interferes with a deeper understanding of the characters – something I would have liked a little more of. And, as is often the case, some of the characters’ stories did more for me than others. I felt I persevered, and had to tell myself to do so, through parts of this book. And perhaps the only chapters that glued this book together, and “saved” it for me, were the rather touching beginning and ending.
There is some wonderful prose, some wonderful insight into what emotions, stress, and social circumstances will do to family life while also underlining love next to heartbreak.. And yet, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie failed to grab me, convince me, as such a heartbreaking story might be expected to do.
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