You’ve always tried to do best for your family.
You make sure everyone’s fed nutritious food three times a day. You put clothes on their bodies, bubbles in their baths, and a soft bed beneath them every night. There are toys on the floor, couple dollars in the bank, holidays are all good, and you do your best to make sure it stays that way.
But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just go bad. That’s when, as in the new novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” by Ayana Mathis, doing your best just isn’t good enough.
Floyd always thought of himself as the oldest Shepherd child, even though the twins came before him. His mother, Hattie, never forgot about her dead babies and as a result, Floyd and his siblings grew up in a suffocating house. That was good reason to leave home as soon as he could. Why he felt a strong pull toward loving young men, well, he couldn’t answer that.
Just 15, Six wondered if he had somehow inherited his mother’s temper. People thought he was a quiet child; poor Six with scars from that long-ago accident. What they didn’t know was that the accident charred more than just his skin: he burned with fire enough to beat another boy near to death, and he burned with the Holy Spirit.
Growing up, Alice was like a mother to her own brothers and sisters. It almost had to be that way; their father, August, was always away, and Hattie had her hands full with babies. Alice had a particular soft spot for her brother, Billup, and she promised to take special care of him for life.
Billup didn’t need Alice, and he told her so. She didn’t need to protect him any more. She wasn’t the one who was molested, anyhow.
And there were always more babies. Ruthie, who was the child of another man. Ella, whom Hattie gave away. Bell , always on the outside.
And then there was Sala, the child Hattie could do right by.
The child she could save. The child who could save her.
Who can resist a book that starts out sweet, quickly turns tragic, gives you hope and then … well, not me. That’s why I loved “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” so much.
Author Ayana Mathis doesn’t bother to tug on our heartstrings in this book. No, she rips at them with this story of a woman who holds her hurts close and in doing so, makes her pain echo through several decades.
Where this book shines is in Mathis’ character development: it’s oh-so-very easy to forget that the people aren’t real. You’ll squirm at some of the troubles here. For sure, there are parts of this book that will make you breathless.
Be aware that you may want a tissue for parts of this novel. Be aware that you won’t be able to put this book down.
If you need a good story in the worst way, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” may be best.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is a professional book reviewer. She lives in Wisconsin.
“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie”
By Ayana Mathis
c.2012, Knopf, $24.95