Hattie and August Shepherd are teen-aged newlyweds when they migrate from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. Their first children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, die after Hattie has nursed them for ten days, using both Southern folk cures and the doctor's advice. The description of their illness and death is heartbreaking and it should perhaps not be surprising when we gradually realize that Hattie has been irreparably broken, unable to show affection to the nine children who come along later.
We learn of the mother Hattie became--though somehow we can't hate her for it--through the individual stories of her children. Floyd is a 20-something musician touring the South in 1948, covering his attraction to men by sleeping with every woman who is willing. In 1950, teenager Six, who was badly burned in a home accident, is sent South with a Bible after he beat another boy nearly to death; Six sometimes feels the spirit in a way that allows him to touch others with his preaching, but he doesn't genuinely feel a calling and also becomes a womanizer. Ruthie, born in 1951, is the child of Hattie's lover Richard. When August, who has repeatedly cheated on Hattie, learns that Ruthie is not his child, Hattie and August fight and she takes Ruthie and leaves with Richard. Because Richard almost immediately breaks his promise to stop gambling (he has lied to her about how he makes his living), she returns home, chastened.
Ella was born in 1954, at a time when August and Hattie were having severe financial problems; ultimately, Hattie decides to give Ella to her childless sister Pearl, who still lives in Georgia. When Pearl arrives, Hattie tries to change her mind, but ultimately sustains yet another scar when Ella leaves with Pearl. Alice and Billups were close as children, sharing a secret that is not made entirely clear to the reader (perhaps Billups was sexually abused). Alice marries a successful doctor, but her wealth does not bring her happiness; her husband wants children, but she secretly takes birth control pills (it is now 1968). She continues to try to control Billups with their childhood intimacy and freaks out when she finds out he is dating her maid.
Franklin is in Viet Nam in 1969, drinking, using drugs, and wishing his wife (who has just revealed they have a daughter) would take him back--even though he knows he is her ruination. Bell's story takes us to 1975; terribly ill, she has been abandoned by her boyfriend and has decided to die. Ten years ago, she slept with her mother's old lover Richard, and she and her mother have not spoken since. When a friend tells Hattie that Bell is ill, however, Hattie takes her to the hospital and perches in a chair outside the isolation room day and night, waiting for her daughter to recover.
Cassie, mother of ten-year-old Sala, is mentally ill. Convinced that Hattie and August are trying to poison her and hearing voices raging in her head, she throws herself from a moving car. While she survives with minor injuries, her parents realize they must have her committed, leaving Sala in their care. When Sala goes to the altar in church to give her life to Jesus, Hattie stops her, believing that religion is no solution to the difficulties her family has faced.
Clearly, the pain and trauma that the family has undergone is unremitting--yet something about the raw power of the story keeps you reading. While Mathis is clearly writing about the challenges faced by African Americans both in the South and the North to which they migrated, individual decisions also play a key role in the tribulations the family members face. And, though the ending is by no means Pollyannish, somehow, it is possible to feel a small bit of optimism for Sala. Hattie has reflected on her shortcomings as a mother and perhaps she will provide a kinder, gentler brand of mothering to her already damaged granddaughter. Despite her many failings, Hattie is still a character who exudes a certain strength that makes her impossible to hate--even when she might deserve it.
Except for Floyd, Six, and Richard, the men in the book are largely caricatures, which is a shortcoming. It can also be difficult to figure out the order of the children, with the skipping from child to child and year to year--but this is probably not all that important.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a harrowing read but one I recommend for the stout of heart.
The lives they would have had are unoccupied, that is to say, the people they would have loved, the houses they might have owned, jobs they would have had, were all left untenanted. Not a day went by that Hattie did not feel their absence in the world, the empty space where her children's lives should have been.