The Bossy Bookworm
Review of Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
Betty is based on the author's family stories of difficulties, abuse, tragedies, and a hardscrabble life in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio.
In Tiffany McDaniel's novel Betty--set in the foothills of Appalachia and based upon her own family's stories--a young woman comes of age surrounded and shaped by poverty and violence.
Betty Carpenter is the sixth child of eight born to a white mother and Cherokee father, and her life in rural Breathed, Ohio, is tough for her and her family.
But Betsy is resilient. She revels in the wonders of the natural world, soaks in her father's rich stories, loves her sisters loyally and eternally, and uses her imagination to escape the hardships of her life.
I admit that at first I felt frustrated with her father's frequent tale-telling and often-discussed folklore-based beliefs about life, curses, demons, and home remedies in the face of the practical problems that threaten the family. Yet he's optimistic and loving. His unwavering acceptance of others (particularly the love he shows regarding son Lint’s challenges and difficulties) along with his view of his children as individuals with gifts and bright futures was all so absolutely precious, I began to appreciate his unorthodox thinking.
Betty is a gem, a sensitive, strong spitfire of a girl. Betty's sister and two youngest brothers were written as vivid, individualized characters (with tragic life trajectories). Her other family members were consistently difficult to read about--a horrifically, criminally abusive brother, a cruel and selfish sister, and a mentally ill mother capable of enacting frequent emotional and physical destruction on her children.
There's excruciating, relentless pain for almost the entirety of Betty's story. What feels like her mother Alka's descent into madness threatens the safety of the whole family, both through Alka's active acts of abuse toward the children and--with her husband-- an inability to keep track of them and their goings-on and the impossibility of seeing to their safety.
There are numerous (largely unpunished) horrors perpetuated in Betty. Abuse, rape, cycles of aggression and emotional coldness, misogyny--her childhood is an avalanche of horrors. It felt as though for much of the story, every character was teetering on the edge of destruction, and plenty of them tip over the edge. Betty copes with witnessing many of the upsetting situations, and as the child who most resembles her father, Betty often copes with racism and bullying (while her father is cruelly beaten and treated badly because of his Cherokee heritage).
Once you get into the meat of the early story and experience the ongoing, snowballing trauma, you might imagine that things couldn’t get worse. But you’d be incorrect. There's a serial killer aspect to the story that left me reeling throughout (and that Betty didn't ever address head on). I was waiting for a brutal, swift kick of justice for the person responsible, the person who held a horrifying amount of crushing power within the family.
Family members also frequently offer each other life-and-death, destructive advice, which puts them in danger of drowning, falling from great heights, and other disasters, plus there are threats of retaliatory suicide--and sometimes things end horribly as a result of these casual suggestions. I found it extremely disturbing to read. There's also a Horrific Animal Incident that I won't soon recover from reading.
McDaniel's fanciful language is sometimes tragically beautiful, and other times frustrating when it means characters aren’t facing or coping with reality so that they may save each other or save themselves.
I appreciated the details of country life, the slog of boredom, the grave necessity of scraping together sustenance, the kids' imaginations and the dangerous explorations they pursue for entertainment, and the endless days with only spiraling thoughts for company.
The pacing of the book is frenetic; it feels like it runs along in great leaps, then it jumps and skips. This distracted me, but in a way it also suited the story. Betty was often painful to read, but isn't a book I'll soon forget.
This was my book club's first read of 2022.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
Tiffany McDaniel was inspired to write Betty by hearing her own family's stories going back generations. From what I've read of the background of the story, McDaniel generally stayed close to the facts as presented to her in family stories and as told to her by her mother (the real Betty) and her grandmother Alka. I'm not sure how much she departed from facts into fiction, and I'd be curious to know more about that.