Betty by Tiffany McDaniel [A Review]

A coming of age story and a family odyssey in 20th century America, Betty is a heartbreaking tale of survival amidst poverty, against the fronts of racism and in the long shadow of a history of the abuse of women.

Cover image of Betty, a novel by Tiffany McDaniel

Betty Carpenter’s parents met in a graveyard. Her father, Landon; tall, cool and dark; was working there as a gravedigger. Betty’s mother, Alka Lark, only eighteen, watches him collecting mushrooms. When it starts to rain, they take shelter under a tree.

They next meet when Alka, clearly pregnant, tracks Landon down to the factory where he is now working. He proposes a courtroom wedding and is angry when he hears how her father beat her when he found out she was pregnant. They go to her house and Alka gets her things while Landon beats up her father outside. Having knocked out three of his teeth, Landon pulls out a knife to cut his nose and expose his soul, only to drop his new father-in-law in disgust at seeing he has no soul. The couple leave, without regret, to start a new life.

They settle in Breathed, Ohio and their son, Leland is born in 1939. More children follow in the coming years while the family regularly move around from town to town trying to improve their fortunes. Betty, the seventh child and not the last, is born in 1954.

Unlike the other children Betty inherits her father’s dark complexion and he affectionately calls her his ‘little Indian’. Landon is descended from the Cherokee who were forced out of Oklahoma and made to be ‘civilised’, taught English and converted to Christianity. A way of life and culture obliterated with only fragments of it remaining. In Landon, it mostly endures in his extensive knowledge of horticulture and natural medicine. He tells Betty that his parents had to say they were Black Dutch, to avoid being put into a reservation. When still a child, Betty witnesses her father being beaten in a racist attack. Like her father, Betty will also have to endure the regular torment of deeply prevalent racism.

Sighing, I stared at my reflection. My skin had been darkened by the summer sun to a rich colour not unlike our garden after a rain. I always thought it was a beautiful colour, the garden after a rain. And yet, I wanted to be the bright-eyed child, too pale to live on barren land. At least that’s what everyone but Dad seemed to be telling me I should want. To seek another face, one that would be pallid in the moonlight. But as I stared longer at my reflection, I asked myself what was so terribly wrong with the way I looked. After all, my ancestors had bundled magic on a thousand walks through Christ and millennias, denying the faintest suggestion that they were not beautiful enough. The black of my hair had been part of ancient ceremonies. My eyes were steeped in tradition, buoyed by the divinity of nature. Dad always said we came from great warriors. Did I not have this greatness in me? The power of a woman so ancient, but still young in her time. I imagined her as she was then. Her spirit fierce. Her bravery undeniable. How could I not be as powerful? Why could I not consider myself beautiful when I thought of her as the most beautiful one of all?

The realities of life Betty learns from her mother, though, are possibly even more disturbing. From her she learns what she should expect from life as a woman. Betty learns of a history of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of monstrous men seemingly incapable of being any different, and of the women who stand by their sides saying this is just how it is in every family, in every generation, this is a woman’s lot.

Some little girls grow up with fathers who are decent, kind, and tenderly nested by their daughter’s heart. Other little girls grow up with no father at all, thus ignorant of good men and the not so good ones. The unluckiest of all little girls grow up with fathers who know how to make storms out of sunshine and blue skies. My mother was one such unlucky little girl and suffered the childhood you run away from. Except, if you have nowhere to run to.

In the early 1960’s, an opportunity allows them to return to Breathed. A friend of Landon bought a house, surrounded by a fair bit of land, but found he could do little with it. Locals believe it to be cursed after the mysterious disappearance, more than fifty years earlier, of the family who lived there. The offer of a home of their own, a settled life and a degree of self-reliance is too good to miss.

The Carpenters make this place their home. There is room enough to grow their own food and sell some of the excess. Locals also frequent the property, discreetly seeking out Landon for his moonshine and his home remedies. But despite the enormous effort put in by Landon, the threat of poverty hangs over everything they build there. And tragedy, which has followed them from place to place, has made a new home here too.

Landon builds a stage for the children to play on which they name ‘a faraway place’. As they grow, and their individuality begins to sprout, each child shows a passion for expression, whether as an artist, a writer or an actor. The sisters particularly spend their afternoons in the sun on that stage, each dreaming of escaping to another life, far away from the one they know in the foothills of the Appalachians.

Betty is the second novel I have read by Tiffany McDaniel after The Summer That Melted Everything. Like her earlier novel, Betty is very evocative of a time and a place, in this case the region around her native Ohio in the mid-twentieth century, and her ability to transport the reader there is one of her strengths. Understandably from the description I have given above; the experience of racism, sexism, abuse and the characters’ attempts to endure and survive are key themes in the novel.

I had spent the majority of my coming-of-age desiring to see a different reflection. I could either abandon the doubts I beheld and be free, or else dwell in the eye of the prejudiced, to be chained there. There are too many enemies in life to be one of yourself. So when I turned seventeen, an age that gives one permission to light the flame of new passions, I decided to refuse hate’s ambition.

I can’t underemphasise the tragic aspects of this story. I do not necessarily think of myself as an especially stoic reader. However, I do notice that when I have recommended books like We Need to Talk About Kevin or TV shows like Dexter or The Handmaid’s Tale, that I have enjoyed, friends do tell me that, while they are sure these are very good, they don’t think they could stomach them. Yet, Betty was a story that tested me. The tragedy of the racism, sexism, poverty and depression; the horror of the violence and abuse inflicted on adults, children and animals; was at times difficult for me to endure.

It is also not simply the awful events of the novel that make it difficult. Betty is no fairy tale. It is not necessarily going to give you the satisfaction of seeing justice for the wronged. Instead, some of the greatest moments of tragedy are accidents with no fault or justification and therefore no satisfaction. Sometimes those who have suffered the most are turned into monsters themselves by their suffering, complicating your impulse for sympathy. It is possible to overlook the skill required to deliver the scenes and events in Betty. They could easily be fumbled even by a well-meaning writer. The nature of the events – sexual abuse, for example – mean that there is also an ethical obligation to get them right. As difficult as some passages may be to read, you can’t argue that McDaniel has not delivered them with impact, realism and care.

What added acid to my reading of Betty is knowing that it was inspired by generations of McDaniel’s family as well as people and places she has encountered in life. In particular, her mother, also named Betty, whose father is described as a ‘Cherokee, a moonshiner and a mythmaker’. Although, she also says that the novel’s contents are fictional and not to be construed as real, I certainly read it as if I was reading a real family history which made it considerably impactful.

The book is part dance, part song, part shine of the moon.

One source of comfort, for Betty and the reader, is her father, Landon. Charming and kind, Landon’s response to the troubles his ‘little Indian’ brings to him is to regale her with a story. His myths and fables have to power to disarm, subdue and reassure, and are one of the engaging aspects of the novel. But faced with so much pain over an entire childhood, both Betty and the reader have to wonder for how long his stories can retain their power, and to what extent Landon tells them to appease his own pain. As Betty grows up, her father’s deflections will not be enough and she will need new ideas and new perspectives to survive all she has lived through.

I realised then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, we needed to believe them as well. To believe in unripe stars and eagles able to do extraordinary things. What it boiled down to was a frenzied hope that there was more to life than the reality around us. Only then could we claim a destiny we did not feel cursed to.

Some of the other aspects of Betty that affected me, would, unfortunately, be spoilers to share. There is a chapter, late in the novel, that I found particularly beautifully written. There were some metaphorical details that I thought were well done. And, as someone who does not become easily invested in fictional characters, I found myself caring a great deal about the journeys of some in this novel and in ways I am not usually accustomed to. Some, because of their words and deeds, I lost sympathy for, despite the awful things they experience. For others, who also meet terrible fates, through no fault of their own, I felt outraged on their behalf. Either way, as I said, there is little solace of justice on offer.

As the juice dripped down her chin, I thought of how God exists in little ways we don’t always see unless we happen to be looking at the very moment a sister dares the demons and reminds you that not all paradises have gone just yet.

It is difficult for me to say that I ‘enjoyed’ Betty; it is not that sort of novel. It confronts the reader with events and themes that are difficult even to read about, much less to experience first hand. That being said, I think it would be unfair to say it is a book to ‘endure’ either. Some of these themes, and the way the characters react to them, included things I could personally relate to. I imagine this novel could potentially be very powerful for readers who know these themes more intimately than I do. The way the book ended was another aspect I liked. I offered the possibility of resolution and closure. Sometimes in a difficult life that is the best you can hope for.

I remember the fierce love and devotion as much as I remember the violence. When I close my eyes, I see the lime-green clover that grew around our barn in the spring while wild dogs drove away our patience and our tenderness. Times will never be the same, so we give time another beautiful name until it’s easier to carry as we go on remembering where it is we’ve come from. Where I came from was a family of eight children. More than one of us would die in the prizewinning years of youth. Some blamed God for taking too few. Others accused the devil of leaving too many. Between God and devil, our family tree grew with rotten roots, broken branches, and fungus on the leaves.

Note – Betty has just been released on August 18th 2020. Author Tiffany McDaniel provided me with an Advanced Reading Copy in return for an independent review.

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