The Twelve Tribes of Hattie Reading Guide – Ayana Mathis
Dive into Oprah’s latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 with 16 questions about Ayana Mathis’s stunning first novel, The Tribes of Hattie.
From  |  Dec 06, 2012
The Great Migration forms the backdrop for The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and was an ongoing inspiration to the author in writing it. What do you know about this historical phenomenon, and what role can you discern it plays in the book? Are there family members of yours who experienced/were affected by it?
In the book’s first chapter, Hattie suffers a terrible double tragedy: her infant twins fall ill and die. How do you think this event changes the course of Hattie’s life/the course of the novel?
Hattie thinks her mother would have thought the names she chose for her twins—Philadelphia and Jubilee—were “vulgar,” “low and showy.” But Hattie chose them to “give her babies names that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia.” Instead, she wanted to give them names “of promise and hope, reaching forward names.” What do you think the author means to convey here?
In the second chapter (“Floyd”), the narrative moves up twenty-three years, to 1948, and focus shifts to Hattie’s oldest surviving son. Discuss how the novel’s structure, i.e., ten chapters, each focused on a different character and time period, affects the reading experience.
What do you think the author intends on page 17 when she refers to the “rotting-jasmine smell of the South” Floyd detects as he drives, en route to a musical gig?
Do you think Floyd will come out as a gay man after the scene with Lafayette on page 33, or do you think his temperament and experience, and the times, will prevent this? Or will he hang himself “like Judas”?
What do you think the author intended by making Six’s true relationship to God/preaching so ambiguous? Is he a religious person, or does he just like the power his preaching has over others?
In the chapter called “Ruthie,” we see Hattie being drawn away from her family (and from her husband, August) to another man. When, in Baltimore, she decides to leave Lawrence and return home, what do you think is in her mind?
When Hattie reluctantly, bitterly, hands over custody of Ella to her sister, Pearl, what ending do you imagine the event will have in terms of Ella’s life and in terms of Pearl’s relationship with her sister?
In the Alice and Billups chapter, Alice realizes she has lost her relationship with her brother Billups to her maid, Eudine. What do you think the author is saying about Alice by having her condescend terribly to the maid who has become her brother’s fiancée?
In the “Franklin” chapter, the author varies tones and locales, shifting to 1969, to Vietnam, where Franklin is a soldier. This character feels more distant not only geographically but also in terms of how much of a window the reader gets into his thinking. Why do you think the author chose this approach for Franklin’s chapter?
The chapter titled “Bell,” set in 1975, finds Hattie’s daughter Bell in a state of despair over a breakup, and over a betrayal she’s committed. She’s very ill—and unwilling to try and get better. She and her mother haven’t spoken in years because of that betrayal, which involves Lawrence, Hattie’s lost love. Still, it is only Hattie who is finally able to nurse Bell back to health, revealing that while Hattie may not show her maternal nature very often, it’s still there. Discuss the deep bond between Bell and Hattie, and the return of Lawrence.
What do you think Bell’s motivation is for entering into a relationship with Lawrence? And do you think Lawrence is aware of Bell’s relationship to Hattie on any level? What does this say about Lawrence?
The chapter about Cassie is so painful to read because it gets inside the mind of someone who has lost herself—who is devastatingly mentally ill. When you read this chapter, do you think of Cassie’s illness as something that sprang organically from who she is (nature), or do you see it as the result of Hattie’s grief and lack of tenderness (nurture)?
The last chapter, “Sala,” shifts the focus away from Hattie’s children to her granddaughter. What do you think this chapter’s message is? Is it ultimately hopeful?