The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

February 6, 2014

12 tribes of hattie Plot summary (from the publisher): 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.

Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last—glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • I liked the structure of the novel, with Mathis more or less devoting each chapter to a different one of Hattie’s children. Sometimes this format doesn’t work, but I thought the author handled the narrative very effectively.
  • I was most intrigued by the women’s stories. Bell, Cassie, Alice, Sala, and of course Hattie herself. These were the best chapters, IMO, and the ones where the author really provides the characters with the depth they deserve.
  • Although difficult to read at times, I appreciated the grittier sections of the book as well. These characters did not have easy lives, and the author is not afraid to show that.
  • I loved the passage near the book where the author describes the kind of love Hattie had for her children. Something about how she might not have been the most affectionate mother in terms of bestowing hugs or kisses, but that was only because she took a more practical approach. Her love was shown in the way she fed them, clothed them, and “prepar[ed] them to meet the world.” Beautiful — and so true!


  • All of the men in this book are pretty much portrayed as scumbags. I don’t know what the opposite of “misogyny” is, but think it might be applicable to this book.
  • Because there were so many characters to cover, the reader is inevitably left wanting to know more. For example, Six’s story felt particularly short and incomplete, leaving me a bit frustrated at the lack of further illumination. I also wanted a bit more of a follow-up on Hattie giving Ella away to her sister. What happened to the girl? Did her fate turn out any better than her brothers and sisters?
  • I didn’t really care for Franklin’s story, with the action shifting to Vietnam. It was unnecessary to track him there, and took me out of the book until his chapter concluded. Sure, I can see that Mathis wanted to show that Franklin ended up like his father August (loving his wife, but also cheating on her without a second thought), but she could have gone about it a bit differently.


I have had mixed results with Oprah’s Book Club titles, so I wasn’t sure how well I would like The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. It turned out to be far more engrossing and compelling than I imagined. Despite the scope of the story and the number of characters, the overall story is remarkably coherent. Most of the characters are realistic, with trials and tribulations that draw the reader in almost immediately. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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