Review of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Some say that the most important relationship in a child’s life is the one he or she has with their mother. For those
who have memories of their mother being as close to perfection as 1980’s iconic television mom Claire Huxtable, there are stories of intimate bonding. However, for those who have a less perfect and more challenging connection with their mothers, often there is the shadow looming over that relationship of what could have been. Author Ayana Mathis explores the fragility that often marks the tenuous relationship between mothers and children in her masterfully written debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Set against the backdrop of the Great Migration, the time period from 1910’s – 1970’s when millions of African Americans left the South for dreams of prosperity in the North, the novel provides a peak into the life of Georgia born Hattie Shepherd, her husband and their eleven children as they struggle to survive in Philadelphia.
Each chapter of this Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection focuses on a specific time in the lives of each of Hattie’s children. The book starts with the riveting and tragic deaths of her two oldest children. Mathis weaves the lives of the dysfunctional family into each chapter showing Hattie’s unsuccessful attempts to process her grief. Hattie takes out her frustration, sadness, anger and hostility out on her surviving children. As a result, each child is impacted by what appears to be the unpredictable outbursts and bizarre behavior from their mother.
Some have compared Mathis to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker saying that her ability to sympathetically show the vulnerabilities and imperfections in her characters indicates a keen insight into human behavior. The compelling narrative exposes family secrets all while offering a fascinating look into how emotional and spiritual brokenness impacts the human spirit.
Shewanda Riley teaches English Composition and Literature at Tarrant County College (TCC) in Hurst, Texas. She has taught English Composition 1 and 2, British Literature 1 and 2, World Literature, American Literature since 1999. She has also taught dual credit courses. Riley graduated from Southern Methodist University with a MA in English and St. Mary’s University with a BA in English-Communication Arts. Her awards include Who’s Who in American Teachers and Educators (2007). She is also a 2009 Fellow of the Salzburg Global Education Seminar Program. Riley is currently pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Texas at Arlington in Arlington, Texas. In addition, she has been an advisor for Phi Tau, Tarrant County College’s chapter Phi Theta Kappa, the International Honors Society for two year colleges, since January 2011.
Riley is a Dallas-based author, educator and public speaker. Her debut book, “Love Hangover – Moving From Pain to Purpose after a Relationship Ends,” was named a best seller by Essence Magazine and featured in Jet Magazine. She also writes a column for the Dallas Weekly and Mississippi Link. She has made presentations at the International Conference on Religion, Literature and Culture, NISOD, Community College Humanities Association, Conference of College Teachers of English, Tyler Junior College Professional Development Day, Tarrant County College Northeast Campus Student Orientation, Cedar Valley College, the ESC Region XI Distance Learning Conference, and The Texas Association of Black Personnel in Higher Education annual conference.
This post was written by MARK DOLIVE