They come from the same home, share the same last name, but their experiences of family are as disparate as “Rashomon” recollections: Hattie and August Shepherd and their 11 children, sprawling across the decades of the 20th century in Ayana Mathis’s ripe and deeply nourishing debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”
Oprah Winfrey propelled it into the cultural conversation earlier last month, vouching for the novel as she chose it for her book club. But don’t let her imprimatur sway you either way. Opening the book should do the trick. Mathis is a literary newcomer, but she is also 39, and her fully formed storytelling powers captivate from the first pages.
In 1925, Hattie is a beautiful and bubbly 16-year-old, not long removed from Georgia, already married to August. She revels in their infant twins, Jubilee, a girl, and Philadelphia, a boy named for his parents’ adopted city. Hattie easily imagines the future with her tiny ones in it: “The next summer Philadelphia and Jubilee would be walking; they’d totter around the porch like sweet bumbling old men.” Mathis’s prose is lush yet deliberate, with hardly a wasted word, and her touch is elegant and sure. When pneumonia kills the babies at seven months, Hattie feels “their deaths like a ripping in her body.” It’s a ripping in her marriage, too, and in the fabric of their family; from then on Hattie becomes a colder, sterner presence.
“Man hands on misery to man,” as Philip Larkin wrote, and Hattie’s pain spills down onto all of the sons and daughters who come after: Floyd and Cassie, Bell and Six, Franklin, Alice, Billups, Ruthie, Ella. Yet this is not a blame-the-mother narrative. It is, instead, a complex and deeply humane story of a mother’s ferocious love and failures at loving. It is also a distinctively American story of a black family, part of the Great Migration, whose fortunes are shaped by poverty and toil, and shadowed by racism. As certainly as August Wilson did in the plays of his 20th-century cycle, Mathis is chronicling our nation.
Chapter by chapter, she brings Hattie and each of her children sharply into focus. We meet Floyd at 22, a horn player on the road in 1948, and watch as his hope and awareness dawn: He could fall in love with a man, spend his life with a man, be happy. A couple of years later comes our interlude with Six, a wounded teenager capable of explosive violence and thrust into preaching on the revival circuit. In 1968, lovely Alice, a young bride risen into isolating affluence, becomes untethered.
The fortunes of Hattie’s brood are varied, and regret is a recurring theme. We get our close-up of Franklin, drunk, in 1969, as his squad seeds a Vietnamese beach with mines. He is struggling to write a letter to his ex-wife, who has left him for plenty of cause. “What I want to say is let’s try to be a family: I am here and still alive,” he explains. “Give me another chance to become somebody decent.” For all of their differences, that is what each of the Shepherds wants, Hattie and August included.
Half a dozen years later, when Hattie is over 60, one of her children tries to kill herself in despair over a life in ruins.
“I don’t know what brought you so low. I should have known,” Hattie says, blaming herself as her daughter recuperates in a hospital bed. “I never did know what to do about my children’s spirits.”
“I just didn’t want anything anymore,” her daughter says.
“Everybody’s been there,” Hattie replies. “Everybody I’ve ever met.”
That, right there, is why we tell stories, and why we read them: because they remind us that every pain that anyone’s ever known is part of the human condition, and so we are not alone. Every unhappy family is not unhappy in its own way, not really. All of that unhappiness has happened before, and it will happen again. Likewise all of the joy. In the vivid specificity of Mathis’s tale, she is telling a universal story, and it is profoundly consoling.Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes