Historically, the 12 tribes of Israel are descendants of the patriarch Jacob. In this book, the 12 tribes are descendants of Hattie, a 15-year-old Southern girl who marries, moves from Georgia to Philadelphia, and settles into a life that brings her disappointments and tragedies. Rather than plagues of frogs and locusts, Hattie is plagued by alcoholism, infidelity, doubt and depression.
The book begins with the birth of Hattie’s first children, twins Philadelphia and Jubilee. Had the rest of the book maintained the pace and drama of the first chapter this book would’ve been excellent. I found the first chapter so heartbreaking I had to put the book down. But the remaining chapters, which are told by and about Hattie’s offspring, are often much less impactful.
Floyd is a sexually confused musician traveling through the South in the 1940s. Six is a prodigious but sinful preacher. Alice and Billups are adults traumatized by abuse they suffered as children. Franklin is unfaithful. Cassie is institutionalized. Bell is dying alone. By the end of the book, each of Hattie’s ‘tribes’ has told a story, and each one is more depressing and hopeless.
Many of the chapters exist as singular stories, but I thought the best ones casually mention Hattie and bring her back into the story, even if only peripherally. Ideally the book would end with a fairly complete portrait of Hattie, whether or not we liked what we saw, but many of the stories stop and start abruptly and the fates of many characters is untold.
My biggest issue with the book sounds disrespectful – after all the time period it covers was tumultuous and violent – but I wanted someone, anyone, to be happy, to find happiness. Chapter after chapter the characters struggle with alcoholism, infidelity, abuse, poverty, illness. It’s heaped on so that by the end of the book you’re a little jaded. (Much like Hattie, I suppose.)
There is a passage near the end of the book that summarizes the entire novel for me:
“Fate had plucked Hattie out of Georgia to birth eleven children and establish them in the North, but she was only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given. No one could tell her why things had turned out as they had, not August or the pastor or God himself. Hattie believed in God’s might, but she didn’t believe in his interventions. At best, he was indifferent.”