Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

This is a devastating book, beautifully written, but devastating. In the early years of the twentieth century Hattie Shepard and her sisters journey north to Philadelphia. They hope to escape the violence of the Jim Crow south. What they find is a world that falls far short of the hopes and dreams they had for their new life. The book follows each of Hattie's children as they struggle to make their way in the world. Through these chapters we discover that a life of poverty and struggle has turned Hattie into a hardened woman. She can survive against all odds, but survival burns up all physical and emotional resources. Hattie's children experience problems of their own, from racial violence to unfulfilled marriages to mental illness.

Mathis does an excellent job of portraying the harsh realities of the Great Migration. The historical details of the book are well-done. We see the cruelties of a world in which babies die for want of a few dollars' worth of penicillin, and mothers are forced to give up children they cannot afford. As fiction the strength of the chapters varied, and I found that they got stronger as they went on. Some of the conclusions of each character's story are not altogether satisfying. Still, this is a worthwhile read, as it brings to life an important part of the American story.

Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Knopf, 2012) ISBN: 0385350287 

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