Oprah doesn’t often pick small, quiet novels for her book club. She tends to favor epic subjects — slavery, the Holocaust, the end of civilization — or family sagas so sprawling, you could get German discus throwers to practice on them. Her latest choice, Ayana Mathis’ debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is not that kind of book. True, the story begins during the Great Migration, as Hattie Shepherd leaves the Jim Crow South for a better life in Philadelphia, and it follows the Shepherds through five-plus decades. (Hattie and her husband, their nine children, and one grandchild make up the ”twelve tribes,” and each chapter concerns one or two of them.) But this is a slim, poetic novel, one that focuses less on American progress than on the small but powerful moments that are strung together, like beads on a necklace, to make one long strand of a family’s history.
If Hattie is a mythic heroine searching for a ”New Jerusalem” up north, she’s also a very real wife and mother trying to survive at a time when getting through the day feels impossible. Pregnant with twins in her teens, she calls her children Philadelphia and Jubilee, ”names of promise and hope,” wanting to avoid the ones that were ”chiseled on a headstone in the family plots.” When the twins die of pneumonia, Hattie never gets over the loss, and the children who follow — a closeted gay musician, a fraudulent tent-revival preacher, a suicidal outcast, a schizophrenic, and other troubled souls — spend much of their lives looking to tap into any compassion that’s left in the mother they now call the General.
Like Toni Morrison, whose work Mathis praises in the acknowledgments, the author has a gift for showing just how heavily history weighs on families, as a learned sense of hope or despair gets passed down from parents to children and dreams die little by little, generation by generation. But if the endless heartbreaks sound melodramatic — throughout the book the Shepherds endure suicide attempts, untimely deaths, child abuse by a neighbor, mental illness, tuberculosis, and a horrible accident in which a child’s skin gets burned off in a scalding-hot bathtub — Mathis earns your sympathy by making the rare moments of happiness feel simple and true. One daughter is so fascinated by the only time she saw her mother smile that she takes up with Hattie’s old boyfriend, just to try to understand the joy she once felt with him. Another daughter drowns out the bad voices in her head by remembering her favorite scenes from childhood: her mother in an apron, cooking collard greens, and her father’s juke music climbing up the stairs into the children’s bedrooms, teaching them about love and other things they weren’t supposed to know.
For Hattie, learning about love is much harder. ”Her children did not think her a kind woman — perhaps she wasn’t, but there hadn’t been time for sentiment when they were young,” Mathis writes. ”She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.” But maybe, by teaching them that lesson, their mother would. A-