“A girl comes of age against the knife… but the woman she becomes must decide if the blade will cut deep enough to rip her apart or if she will find the strength to leap with her arms out and dare herself to fly in a world that seems to break like glass around her.”
Inspired by generations of her own family, Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty” is the story of Betty Carpenter’s agonising childhood. Born in a bathtub in 1954 — the sixth of eight siblings — to a white mother and a Cherokee father, Betty’s childhood is suffused with tragedy and heartbreak, pockmarked by the poverty, racism and violence imbedded within the DNA of Breathed, Ohio; degraded further by the corrosive secrets imbued within each Carpenter, which gradually corrupts their familial unity. This toxicity is more potent in certain members than it is others, which comes to the fore as the novel ratchets towards its climax. Some are broken; others merely damaged; but nobody is untouched.
Reading “Betty” reminded me of Roxane Gay’s “An Untamed State,” Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” and Sofie Laguna’s “The Choke.” It is viscerally confronting with its depictions of violence and abuse. It is not for the faint of heart. Certain scenes — which should be discovered during Betty’s narration rather than spoiled in a review — will be lodged in my memory forever, both for their unflinching depiction, and their heartbreaking consequences for our young protagonist.
The narrative thrums with evocative descriptions of the landscape, and marinates in Betty’s father’s stories about native Cherokee traditions. We witness how Betty’s endless exposure to brutality shapes her view of the world, and fear what it means for her future. We hope, and pray, that she finds agency through the power of words, even as she buries her scrawled recounts of the horrors she has witnessed deep in the dirt. McDaniel offers no reprieve. She pulls no punches. She tears into the noxiousness of patriarchy; the aftermath of abuse; the trauma of unrepentant racism. What does it take for a young girl to survive that?
“Betty” is an absolutely gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, graced by powerful and poetic prose.