‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,’ by Ayana Mathis

Still, there has been no novel like “The Grapes of Wrath” that looks squarely at this migration, which might have been the promise and yet not the purpose of so raw and intimate a book as “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” the debut novel of ­Ayana Mathis. The story it tells works at the rough edges of history, residing not so much within the migration itself as within a brutal and poetic allegory of a family beset by tribulations. The narrative opens in 1925, as Hattie Shepherd, a 17-year-old wife and mother newly ­arrived in Philadelphia from Georgia, ­administers mustard poultices and droplets of ipecac to save her infant twins from the pneumonia that has crept into their limp bodies. Because of her desperate circumstances in the cold of the North, she loses her twins “in the order in which they were born.”

The loss of her firstborn children coarsens and reshapes her, and in the succeeding decades that lead up to 1980, in the overlapping stories of several of her surviving children, we learn about Hattie and her 12 tribes — 12, as in the 12 tribes of Israel flung far from Egypt, as well as the 11 children to whom Hattie gives birth and the grandchild she is seen raising toward the end.

Hattie, her men and her children — unmoored, lost and isolated — stumble through a joyless world where “talcum powder and hair grease and smoke fouled the air.” All are seeking a place for themselves, an identity to hang on to: sexual, spiritual, geographic, familial. The aching question of where they belong lurks under the surface of things, the quiet desperation of dying spirits too tired to dream anymore. Mathis expertly leads the reader from one linked story to the next, from a son conflicted over his sexual identity to a womanizing fraud of a preacher to Hattie herself stepping out on the husband who had long stepped out on her. The stories make up a quilt of sorrow, the collard greens and “dear Lord”s mixing with the smell of “pie crust and soil,” while coal furnaces burn with spent hope in a place where misfortune is a character unto itself.

The story is gracefully told, though the grief and pathos are unremitting, with Hattie having had too many losses, too many children, too little money and too little love left to give. The novel concerns itself with life in its extremes, unlike the work of Edward P. Jones, whose empathic fiction finds beauty in the ordinary lives of those who migrated. Following in a long line of hard-suffering black heroines, Hattie is descended from Etta and Mattie and Ciel in Gloria Naylor’s “Women of Brewster Place,” from Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” from Lutie Johnson in Ann Petry’s novel “The Street” and from a rocking-chair porch full of humbly and lyrically named colored women hungry for more than their circumstances allow in a world that can’t see them for who they are.

Hattie is more brittle and rage-filled than her predecessors, a hard crust covering her heart after it was cracked open so early in life by the loss of her infant twins. “Not a day went by that Hattie did not feel their absence in the world,” Mathis writes, “the empty space where her children’s lives should have been.” It seemed as if Hattie’s heart died when her babies’ lungs gave way, and she had barely anything left for the children who followed: “Hattie was like a lake of smooth, silvered ice, under which nothing could be seen or known.” While she loses those two children to pneumonia and later fights to save a third from another lung disease, it is her own heart that suffocates in the cell of a life she has been consigned to: “She wore her white nightgown all day and floated through the rooms of the house, pale and silent as an iceberg.” Unlike her predecessors, Hattie seems unable to muster the will to fight for what remains, her maternal instincts coming to life only when her children are near death.

Isabel Wilkerson, a former national correspondent and bureau chief for The Times, is the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

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‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,’ by Ayana Mathis
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