Livingston Loves Lit: “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” Part 1

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So, it’s been almost exactly a month since I announced our current book club selection. Have you bought or borrowed “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” by Ayana Mathis yet? I am halfway through what Paul Harding calls “a treasure of a novel.” Do you agree with his assessment? I must say, I do. Not only is the story moving but the writing itself is beautiful to read. Certain sentences are meant to be savored such as these when her babies are dying of pneumonia: “She heard a wet gurgling deep in their chests. They were drowning. Hattie could not bear their suffering, but she wanted them to go in peace, so she didn’t scream. She called them precious, she called them light and promise and cloud.”  It is not only the subject that is harrowing, it is the word choice and the rhythm that breaks my heart, sweeping me up into this defining moment of Hattie’s life.

For the next month, on each Wednesday, I will post a couple of questions to keep the discussion going. This week focuses on Chapters 1-2.

1. What do you think about the structure of the novel?

2. Hattie is a complicated woman, to say the least. Do you love her, hate her, have empathy for her or not? The entire novel revolves around her and her children. what are your impressions of her as a mother?

3. Why do you suppose Mathis began the novel with such a tragedy in Hattie’s young life?

4. What do you think of Hattie through Floyd ‘s memory of life after the twins died. “Though Hattie’s grief suffocated, though Floyd and Cassie were untended as strays, the cold, cloistered rooms of Wayne Street took on a kind of beauty in Floyd’s memory. Hattie rarely managed more than a wan smile, but she allowed Floyd and Cassie to climb into her lap, plait her hair, kiss her forehead, as though she were a living doll.

1. Each chapter almost reads as its own story and the novel jumps ahead and back in time. It works for me because I love short stories and I especially love stories that weave together to tell a larger story. And Mathis does a good job of orienting us in each new time and place so it is easy to follow. 

2. I neither love nor hate her, but I definitely have empathy as well as respect for her. She was so young when she got pregnant and married then became part of the great Migration. So far, she appears to epitomize “tough love’ but I also sense that she loves her children fiercely.

3. I think having the twins die so early in the novel sets up much of what comes after. it is a defining moment in Hattie’s life. her love for them is fierce and she is helpless to save them. 

4. This particular passage really touched me. am I thrilled that she neglected her children in the wake of her grief? No. But that vision of her as their “living doll” showed Hattie’s vulnerable side. It also showed her allowing herself to be cared for by others when she is always the caregiver.

So, let me know what you think so far. Feel free to answer these questions, ask any of your own or just leave your opinion. All of your comments are welcome. I look forward to reading what you have to say.


  1. Thanks, Maureen! Yes, that coupon makes it a great deal. That’s how I bought my copy:)

  2. Great questions, Kim! Guess I better get going and get a copy of the novel. Barnes and Noble has a 20% coupon for this weekend. Bingo!

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