‘Betty’: a devastating yet grand coming-of-age tale

This review contains mild spoilers for Betty, and mentions of sexual abuse.

I haven’t quite been able to stop talking about this novel since I turned the final page, because Tiffany McDaniel’s Betty might be one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It tells a somewhat fictionalised version of her mother Betty’s childhood in the foothills of the Ohio Appalachians, mostly in the fictitious town of Breathed. Little Betty Carpenter is born to Alka Lark and Landon Carpenter, a white woman and a Cherokee man in February 1954 in an Arkansas bathtub. She is the sixth of eight siblings, with her elder siblings Leland, Fraya, Flossie, Yarrow, and Waconda before her, and little brothers Trustin and Lint coming after her, all born in different states. After travelling around the States, her parents eventually returned to Ohio, the state of her mother’s people, and settled into an abandoned family home there, slowly bringing it back to life. They live and grow in poverty, making the most of what they have. Throughout Betty’s childhood, she would experience indescribable pain and loss, as well as targeted harassment, discrimination, and isolation, making for a read that is equal parts tragic and unforgettable.

A girl comes of age against the knife.

Betty, Tiffany McDaniel.

Betty is a woman’s story. It is not only the story of Betty Carpenter, but that of her mother and her sisters, Flossie and Fraya, told from Betty’s perspective. Young Flossie, having been born in California, believes she is destined for the big stage and the red carpet. Fraya on the other hand is quieter, or perhaps more subdued, than her younger sisters. In their later years, after difficult adolescent years, Flossie would go on to suffer with addiction. From childhood through to adulthood, Fraya silently battles with routine sexual abuse from within her own family. Both are tragically ‘nailed to the cross of their own gender’, as Betty puts it, despite the inherent fact that they deserved much, much better. But the invisible, or rather little-known, cycle of trauma and abuse seems to begin with Alka, who suffered much like Fraya did, leading to bouts of aggression and depression as she struggles to cope with the events of her past and be with her children in the (then) present. At one point Betty, painfully aware of the historical and persistent abuse that hounds the women in her family, ventures out with a boy just to see ‘if no still means something.’ In the end, though their struggles were visceral and shocking, seeing these women through Betty’s eyes felt much like reading a love letter to them, their strength and resilience; an acknowledgement of who they were and what they meant to their family, especially to their little sister. There’s an exceptional amount of beauty in the words McDaniel employs to describes these women, her aunts, the lives they lived and led.

McDaniel’s writing, largely through her grandfather Landon, is full of mythical fantasies and ancient cultural stories and tellings, securely tying us to her heritage through her words. Consistently, Landon speaks of Restless Star Catchers, blood stars, the Fantastical Eye of Old, and the healing properties of herbs. He ensures that his children grow old with the cultural knowledge and intuition his mother bestowed upon him in his childhood. The language is powerfully illustrative, to the extent that I could envision the eagle soaring across the Ohio sky, the cemetery in which Alka and Landon met for the first time, and even the apple she was eating when they did. Her storytelling skills are grand, and I believe that there is an inherent magic and beauty to this novel that comes from the fact that it is based in truth and history. While the town of Breathed, where much of the story takes place, is not one of reality, Betty Carpenter is, as are Alka and Landon and their children. And in some way, so is the wish-granting eagle and the falling stars.

While the writing was sublime, the depiction of Landon’s fatherhood was tangible, deep, and incredibly healing. Not only did he count the stars in the sky on the night each of his eight children were born, and commit them to memory, he carved their faces into his cane in old age. At a local festival, he hung wind chimes in remembrance of Yarrow and Waconda, neither of whom lived long, and always sat near enough to listen to their music in the breeze, to hear their souls speaking to him. Landon was a character I felt for constantly, for he was a man, a husband, and a father constantly trying his best. He was a healer in the community to some, but to many he was little more than his colour and his heritage and all the negative things their ignorant minds brought forth as a result. Betty, who most closely resembled her father, also suffered torment because of small-town racism from both children and adults alike. In these moments, Landon comforts her with care and gentle distraction in the form of his ancient magic and storytelling.

My father was meant to be a father.

Betty, Tiffany McDaniel.

Betty left me absolutely devastated. Days later, I am still thinking about the Carpenter children. This book is near five-hundred pages of a deeply intimate and profound look into the early years and childhood of one Betty Carpenter. I can’t recommend it enough, though with a caution that it will break your heart more than once and that it is worth looking at the content warnings I’ve listened below. At times it is violent and graphic in its description, with many an ugly event marring the lives of the Carpenters. I’m acutely aware of this novel’s basis in truth, and so I know that it is one I’ll hold especially dear. Following this, I’m keen to read McDaniel’s first novel – The Summer That Melted Everything – as the two seemingly exist within the same universe, with Betty getting in a car with Autopsy Bliss, The Summer’s main character.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Content warnings for Betty: abuse, rape, incest, racism, misogyny, animal cruelty and death, corporal punishment, suicide, murder, child abuse, child death, abortion, overdose, self-harm.

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