Title/Author: Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
In a nutshell (Publisher):
A stunning, lyrical novel set in the rolling foothills of the Appalachians about a young girl and the family truths that will haunt her for the rest of her life
“A girl comes of age against the knife.”
So begins the story of Betty Carpenter. Born in a bathtub in 1954 to a white mother and a Cherokee father, Betty is the sixth of eight siblings. The world they inhabit in the rural town of Breathed, Ohio, is one of poverty and violence–both from outside the family and, devastatingly, from within. The lush landscape, rich with birdsong, wild fruit, and blazing stars, becomes a kind of refuge for Betty, but when her family’s darkest secrets are brought to light, she has no choice but to reckon with the brutal history hiding in the hills, as well as the heart-wrenching cruelties and incredible characters she encounters.
Despite the hardships she faces, Betty is resilient. Her curiosity about the natural world, her fierce love for her sisters, and her father’s brilliant stories are kindling for the fire of her own imagination, and in the face of all to which she bears witness, Betty discovers an escape: she begins to write. She recounts the horrors of her family’s past and present with pen and paper and buries them deep in the dirt–moments that have stung her so deeply she could not tell them, until now.
Inspired by generations of her family, Tiffany McDaniel sets out to free the past by delivering this heartbreaking yet magical story–a remarkable novel that establishes her as one of the most important voices in American fiction.
“Betty. Little ol’ me. I was born in 1954 in a dry claw-foot bathtub in Arkansas. When Mom went into labor on the toilet, the closest place she had to lay was in the tub. In the face of Flossie’s jealousy, I was named after Bette Davis.”Betty, Tiffany McDaniel
Be prepared for your heart to be lifted, broken then lifted again. Be prepared for one of the most brilliant, based-on-real-life fictional novel of all times. McDaniel’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful; it sings and paints. She’s definitely born with the gift her Papaw Landon and her mother, Betty, who were storytellers in their own right. It’s no wonder her debut ‘The Summer That Melted Everything’ had won the hearts of so many readers, and become the recipient of the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. I have yet to read this.
‘Betty’ is based on the author’s mother and her life as a mixed-race girl from rural Ohio. Believe it or not, ‘Betty’ was written nearly two decades ago, when the author was 18, but was rejected by many agents and publishers who considered the novel too ‘dark’, and even suggested her to change her mother into a man. How times have changed in the publishing industry! Do this today, and you’d be cancelled.
In the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, in the fictional Ohio town of Breathed, in a little Victorian-inspired two-story home in Shady Lane, were Betty and her other 5 siblings, her mother, Alka, a white woman, and her dad Landon Carpenter, a Cherokee Native American who worked in the mines.
Leland who was the oldest of the siblings and joined the army, Fraya mostly kept to herself but acted as a mother when Alka wasn’t available, Flossie was obsessed with Hollywood and becoming a star, Betty loved to write, Trustin loved drawing and was great at diving, and Lint, the baby of the family loved collecting rocks. The Carpenters belonged to the the Aniwodi clan, responsible for making a special red paint used in sacred ceremonies and at wartime, also known for its healers and medicine men.
Betty and her sibling’s lives were filled with stories told by their loving, doting father. Stories about birds, plants, rocks, and Cherokee legends like Selu, whose blood seeped into the soil could grow everything, or stories he created out of nothing like The Restless Star Catchers who can never stop flying because they have to catch stars which can never stop falling.
When Betty was bullied at school for her dark skin, when she was consumed by her family’s secrets, when she was overcome by troubles and worries, her father would unburden her with his stories. Naturally, the book opened with one of them – about his heart being made of glass, and within the glass is the bird God caught in heaven. When Betty asked why did God put a bird in there, he said,
“So a little piece of heaven would always be in our hearts. Safest place for a piece of heaven, I reckon.” And the little bird is a “glitterin’ bird and her whole body would shine like little fires of light the way Dorothy’s ruby slippers did in that movie.”
“Through his stories, I waltzed across the sun without burning my feet.” She’d also write her own on scraps of paper, on napkins, on the floor, wherever she could, to escape into her own world.
I loved the heartwarming moments between Betty and her siblings, one of them during Halloween, when Betty wanted to be a princess but her mom forced her to be a witch and wrote ‘hag‘ on her cheek. Betty was made fun of and bullied by the trick-or-treaters. When she went home, her dad gave her little wings made out of leaves and told her she’s a princess because it’s in her blood. When she walked back out, her brother Trustin joined her. Before she could tell her what was she in her costume, he said, “I know what you are Betty. You’re an angel. Look at your wings.” He always knew how to make Betty feel better.
This book got me all tangled up in emotions – sad, angry, disgusted, happy, love; it pulled at my heartstrings as much as tore it apart . Reading about what happened to Alka saddened and infuriated me, and her father repulsed me. The day when Betty and her siblings had nothing to eat, and their mom had them imagine themselves making and eating those doughnuts that didn’t not exist, got me teary-eyed. And the tragedy that befell Trustin broke my heart into a million pieces.
‘Betty’ was heartbreaking, at times, unbearable; there was hate, anger, jealousy, bitterness, violence and abuse, but there was also so much love and compassion shown in the family. When you thought Alka was cruel, you’d be shown her tenderness and your heart would ache for her; when you thought Fraya was weak, she’d surprise you with her strength and tenacity, and when you thought Lint was always lost, you’d see how smart, strong and intelligent he was. And Betty, she was the sum of them all; always their squash, the protector, the one “who stretches her leaves to shade the ground and fight off weeds.” And Landon, their father, he was definitely the heart and soul of the family.
‘Betty’ is about a family who, despite their idiosyncrasies, despite their dark secrets, learned to cope and survive with what they had – each other, stories and nature. The novel also gives voice to all victims of rape and abuse, and to remind all the Bettys who are told they don’t deserve anything good in this world, that they are stronger than they think, that they should come out of the sidelines and make their voices heard and presence known.
Yes, ‘Betty’ was a really tough, challenging read. I had to pause many times and walk away from it, sometimes doubting myself to finish it. But I knew I had to. I wanted to. I wanted the abused to know I’m here, I see them, I hear their cries. I want them to know their voices count and that their stories matter.
This quote was one of the most heartbreaking in the book: “The heaviest thing in the world is a man on top of you when you don’t want him to be.”
This was a heart-shattering coming-of-age story, but one that was also filled with love and compassion written in the most captivating prose. McDaniel, thank you for sharing with us Betty’s story. It’d stay with me for a long time to come.Tweet
For a special write up about Betty’s family and to see some family pictures, click here
But as you can see I also got myself my very FIRST special edition signed by the author. Yes, the book is just that good that I got to have a special edition copy!
Side note: I didn’t know much about Appalachian Mountains, so I googled and stumbled across this article about how people live in Athens County, Ohio, one of the poorest counties in the nation. Take a gander if you’re interested.
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!