Author: Tiffany McDaniel
Published: August 25th 2020
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 stars
‘A girl comes of age against the knife.’ So begins the story of Betty Carpenter.
Born in a bathtub in 1954 to a Cherokee father and white mother, Betty is the sixth of eight siblings. The world they inhabit is one of poverty and violence – both from outside the family and also, devastatingly, from within. When her family’s darkest secrets are brought to light, Betty 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 in her rural town of Breathed, Ohio.
Despite the hardship 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 she bears witness to, Betty discovers an escape: she begins to write.
A heartbreaking yet magical story, BETTY is a punch-in-the-gut of a novel – full of the crushing cruelty of human nature and the redemptive power of words.
With her background as a poet and visual artist, the author of The Summer that Melted Everything, Tiffany McDaniel returns with a soulful new novel titled Betty. Set in the Appalachians in the mid twentieth century, Betty is the bare, confounded and visceral new book from a perceptive writer, who bravely draws on her mother’s tenuous family history to form a powerful fictional tale.
Betty is the unforgettable and incredibly raw coming of age tale of Betty Carpenter. Born to a Cherokee father and a white woman, Betty is one of eight siblings. Living in the Ohio region of the Appalachians, Betty observes deep poverty, racism, sexism and domestic violence in her young life. These acts of violence and oppression occur in both her wider community and in her own family fold. Defined by dark secrets and hard truths, Betty’s family have endured plenty of setbacks in their lives. Despite these heartbreaking and upsetting times, Betty tries to rise above and see the good in the world around her. Betty possesses an inquiring mind and her interest in her circumstances fuels her creative thoughts. Betty is tough and she is determined to channel the cruelties she has encountered in her life in a positive way, through her appreciation for words. Tiffany McDaniel’s tale illustrates the dark side of humanity, but at the same time, this writer highlights the weight of words in transforming a negative world into a hopeful one.
Betty is my first taste of the writing of Tiffany McDaniel, a writer who bravely uses her family’s difficult experiences in the form of a moving fictional tale. Betty is one of those books where it feels inherently wrong to say you enjoyed it. Rather, Betty was a story that proved to be hard hitting and affective. I don’t think I will forget this one any time soon.
At its heart Betty is an incredibly raw and revealling coming of age tale, following the titular character. We are privy to Betty’s wider family history, which carefully charts her mother and her father’s background, their relationship, the expansion of their family through their children and their life as a family unit. Thanks to McDaniel’s vivid and descriptive approach, the reader is easily transported to this difficult time and place. I found the Appalachians region to be rich in tone and impression. What struck me the most about this locale was the devastating and entrenched sexism, racism, cultural divides and poverty. It truly was a dank existence, with little hope, or anything really to strive for. The overwhelming state of hopelessness truly pervades this novel throughout and it made me incredibly thankful for my own upbringing.
There are pockets of hope and gentle appreciation for the world thanks to the lead character. Betty’s stance on the community in which she resides is promising and auspicious, despite the sheer cruelty Betty faces on a day to day basis. Betty’s father is a rich storyteller and his imaginative stories which are often drawn from his Cherokee background work to inspire Betty. Despite the terrible acts of violence and injustice that surround her, Betty seems to rise above it all in her pure love for her siblings and the natural world. McDaniel’s writing allows us to see the magic and beauty that is present in life, even when we are faced with unimaginable realities. It is a poignant reminder.
Structurally, I appreciated the format of Betty. We travel through the mid twentieth century in the foothills of the Appalachians with young Betty as our guide. Tiffany McDaniel was able to embody the thought patterns and mindset of this curious young girl with ease. Through this young girl’s lens, we witness various encounters that impact Betty’s family unit from her intuitive viewpoint. Supplementing this well rendered standpoint is the insertion of keynote bible verses, cultural folklore and revealing newspaper articles, these additions work to further set the scene of this compelling tale.
Overall, Betty was a damaging read, it will trigger some readers and for this reason I do issue a caution. However, the story beneath these acts of brutality and deep oppression is worth bearing witness to. Tender, incisive, pensive and piercing, Betty is a tale that will habituate your mind, long after that final page has been turned.
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is published by Hachette Australia on August 25th 2020. $32.99.
To learn more about the author of Betty, Tiffany McDaniel, visit here.
*Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.