The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

by Ayana Mathis

Over the years, I’ve developed an affinity for the short story format that I once despised. Mathis uses the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North to kick off this saga of a family’s history told through linked short stories. After moving from Georgia to Philadelphia, 15 year old Hattie and her husband August have settled in their new city and are celebrating the birth of their twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. In the first story, named for the twins, Hattie is nursing them through a bout of pneumonia. 

Two pages in, I was hooked. The writing was so vivid and beautiful that I felt that I was in the room with those sick babies and was moved to tears while reading on my commute to work. (I’m sure the other passengers thought I was going through some things.)  Each subsequent chapter focuses on the couple’s 9 other children and takes us from 1925 to the 1980’s giving us insight not only into the lives of each person, but also the nature of the family dynamic and each person’s role in it. Children from large families at times have very different relationships with their parents than their siblings and I love that each story reflected that while also checking in with Hattie and August.

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