Though Ayana Mathis spent much of her adult life in New York and now lives in Iowa, her imagination came home to Philadelphia when she initiated her career in fiction.
Or maybe it is more accurate to say that her imagination turned back to Germantown, the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood where Mathis grew up and where much of her first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, takes place. This is a book that wanders wide in time and space, never giving more than a glimpse of its characters or the details of their environments. But it wanders in Germantown more than anywhere else.
Fiction with a strong sense of place can illustrate the human side of city life in a way that journalism and theory cannot. For those of us who hope to persuade more people to adopt an urban lifestyle, we have to ask ourselves what fears and promises families have when choosing where to live. Novels like The Twelve Tribes of Hattie help elucidate the psyche of both lifelong urban-dwellers and new arrivals.
A driving theme in the book is the different reasons African Americans would chose to move to the urban North or stay in the Jim Crow-era South. Spanning five and a half decades of the 20th century, the story centers on the family of Hattie Shepherd, a Southern-born mother of 12, who transplanted herself to the North after becoming pregnant with twins. This is not a plot-driven novel, but each chapter focuses in on Hattie’s children, with two dedicated to the twins and the last chapter telling the story of a daughter through the eyes of a grandchild. The reader only ever gets the briefest glimpse into each character’s biography and his or her relationship to the family matriarch.
Most of Hattie’s children stay in Philadelphia, but not all of them, and Mathis refuses to answer the question of whether Philadelphia or the Rural South is a better place for the Shepherd children. Hattie came from a well-off family only to spend much of her Northern adulthood near-destitute, in a rented home. Yet for Hattie, there was no question of ever returning home. Take this scene when, upon first arriving at 30th Street Station in 1925, during the early days of the Great Migration, she takes a look around and makes her decision:
Four Negro Girls walked by, teenagers like Hattie, chatting to one another. Just girls in conversation, giggling and easy, the way only white girls walked and talked in the city streets of Georgia. Hattie leaned forward to watch their progress down the block. At last, her mother and sisters exited the station and came to stand next to her. “Mama,” Hattie said, “I’ll never go back. Never.”
There are five characters whose lives make both cases. Later in the book we meet Bell, whose story is set long after Hattie’s childbearing years have come to an end. Bell has one of those chance encounters on a busy avenue that opens up a whole new opportunity for personal happiness — but she also comes to find that you are never more completely alone than in a place where the thousands of people around you have no idea you are dying. Though much of the story is a romantic one about unexpected lovers, the reader knows throughout that Bell is attempting suicide by untreated tuberculosis after losing a man she only won over by lying about her name.
Alice’s story speaks to the promise and peril of social ascension. She is the only daughter who marries into an established African-American family. Her new husband is a doctor and his family finds her attempts to mirror their refinement embarrassing, just as Alice is embarrassed by her own family. For comfort, she tries to turn her twin brother, Billups, into a dependent, so that there is someone who needs her. In the end, the sedatives her husband gives her are her only relief.
One could argue that the only two really successful children are Floyd and Six. They found that success by leaving Philadelphia, but their stories, in the end, are sad. In fact, the only character who experiences an unvarnished triumph in the books is Alice’s twin, Billups, at the moment he tells his sister that he won’t be needing her husband’s money anymore. His success is modest but reliable, and he goes no further from home than Fairmount, a neighborhood about four miles due south of Germantown.
So Mathis leaves readers with no verdict on Philadelphia. Indeed, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is much more about Germantown than it is about Philadelphia. Its own municipality until becoming part of the city in 1854, Germantown has its own distinct architecture and rich historical legacy. In recent decades, it has earned a reputation as one of Philadelphia’s most solidly middle-class African-American neighborhoods.
In one chapter, “Franklin,” the eponymous character calls on a young woman in South Philadelphia and is struck by how different the layout is from the city he knows. He had never been there before, even though it was only a bus ride away. Further, by my count, there’s only one visit to Center City in the whole book.
It’s fiction like this that reminds urbanists that there is no perfect city, and that there could never be unless everyone wanted to live the same kind of life. Instead each city contains many different cities within itself, and in each of those there are many lives to be lead. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie gives readers a look at many of the life trajectories a child can take after being born into one of the most historic places in the United States. Urbanists can get lost in all the promise and potential of bigger and better cities, but Mathis helps illustrate that visions for future cities should incorporate not only hopes for the future, but also build bridges over the pitfalls of the past.
The next book club selection is A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook.