Betty (2020) – Tiffany McDaniel

Title:Betty
Author:Tiffany McDaniel
Publisher/s:Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Date published:2020
Star rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball publishers kindly sent a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“If you just stand still, Betty, you’ll miss somethin’ extraordinary.”

Betty is one of those novels that despite the trauma and heartache it so tenderly narrates, will remain within the reader’s memory for many years. I firmly believe this to be true, and I will also be so bold as to refer to it as one of the best books this reviewer has ever read. Tiffany McDaniel’s debut novel is something unique and extraordinary, and a deeply wrenching ode to the written word, the spoken word, and the stories we tell ourselves to keep the darkness out.

Betty Carpenter is half Cherokee, and half white. Her mother Alka, and her father Landon, and her siblings Leland, Fraya, Flossie, Trustin, and Lint are her whole world. They have just moved to Breathed in southern Ohio from Ozark, Arkansas, and live in a house that’s a bit of a ‘fixer-upper’. Before they moved to Breathed Betty never considered herself to be different. In Breathed she must be different because her neighbors and the other children at school, and even her school teachers keep telling her how different she is. Somehow that’s okay (even if the other children don’t want to play with her), because she enjoys spending time with her siblings, and listening to her father’s many stories.

This is the story of Betty’s childhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Betty is the narrator of this story and the writer in her family. She tells us all about her older brother who went to war and came back mean, about her elder sister Fraya who is just so beautiful and kind, Flossie her other sister who wants to become a movie star, Trustin the brother who loves to draw and Lint the brother who always seems to believe he has every ailment imaginable. They used to have two other siblings – Waconda and Yarrow, but they both died when they were very young. When Betty tells her stories she tells the stories of everyone in her family. Everyone is a part of her own story.

“Growin’ up… I felt like I had sheets of paper stuck to my skin. Written on these sheets were words I’d been called. Pow-wow, Polly, Tomahawk Kid, Pocahontas, half-breed, Injun Squaw. I began to define myself and my existence by everything I was told I was, which was that I was nothing.”

She tells the story of how her parents fell in love, and how her grandparents on her mother’s side didn’t want anything to do with their half-Cherokee grandchildren. She tells the story of her mother’s sadness (and madness) and the stories her father would tell about being Native American and being a girl filled with magic. She would write the stories of her life, and those around her, and put them in jars that she buried in their backyard. She and her sisters would write ‘goodnights’ on little strips of paper for every night they were away from each other.

Whilst her father was making potions and selling hope to the people of Breathed, Betty was watching her mother start to wither away and her siblings start to grow up. Sometimes it felt like it was just Betty and Landon Carpenter keeping the family together, and most of the time that was true.

“I realized then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, but we also 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.”

Each chapter begins with a Bible verse, and scattered amongst the Carpenter’s stories are newspaper articles about a mysterious shooter terrorizing the people of Breathed. This novel reminds the reader that the tragedies of suicide, abortion, rape, alcoholism and mental illness are scattered among you’re happiest days and you’re most peaceful of nights. Betty writes about them so that she never forgets that they happened, just as her father would claim to have eight children, even when only six were alive.

McDaniel’s novel is about the struggles of being different, and about growing up kind despite the pain and the suffering and the very unspeakable tragedies that can befall just one family. It is also a novel about being Native in a very white America, and about embracing the parts of yourself that make you truly unique. Betty is about the power of words, and about a father who did everything in his power to show his children how full of magic the world is – even when they didn’t want to see it, even when they didn’t want to believe it. The power of the stories our fathers, and our grandfathers, and our mothers, and our grandmothers tell us so that we will never forget how the world began, even as we move on.

In Breathed Betty found her voice, and in Breathed she finally learned to breathe.

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