I grabbed this book from NetGalley, when it was listed as a ‘Read Now’ option by publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, so my thanks to all concerned.
A stunning, lyrical novel set in the rolling foothills of the Appalachians in which a young girl discovers stark truths that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
“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. The lush landscape, rich with birdsong, wild fruit, and blazing stars, becomes a kind of refuge for Betty, but when her family’s darkest secrets are brought to light, she 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.
But 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. She recounts the horrors of her family’s past and present with pen and paper and buries them deep in the dirt–moments that has stung her so deeply, she could not tell them, until now.
Inspired by the life of her own mother, Tiffany McDaniel sets out to free the past by telling this heartbreaking yet magical story–a remarkable novel that establishes her as one of the freshest and most important voices in American fiction.
An Ohio native, Tiffany’s writing is inspired by the rolling hills and buckeye woods of the land she knows.
She is also a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and artist.
Betty, was in fact the first book Tiffany wrote, but was published for the first time in 2020
Keep up with all Tiffany’s latest news at her website
“I hope that you enjoy your time with this story, which is inspired by generations of my family. In particular, it is inspired by the strength of my mother and the women who have come before me. In the face of adversity, they rose to their own power. It has been an honor for me to tell such a story”
“I’m still a child, only as tall as my father’s shotgun. Dad’s asking me to bring it with me as I go out to where he is resting on the hood of the car. He lifts the shotgun out of my hands and lays it across his lap. When I sit next to him, I can feel the heat coming off his skin like he’s a tin roof in summer”
PART ONE – I AM (1909 – 1961)
“A girl comes of age against the knife. She must learn to bear its blade. To be cut. To bleed. To scar over and still, somehow, be beautiful and with good enough knees to take the sponge to the kitchen floor every Saturday”
MEMORABLE LINES FROM THE BOOK
“Between God and Devil, our family tree grew with rotten roots, broken branches, and fungus on the leaves”
“My father’s hands were soil. My mother’s were rain. No wonder they could not hold one another without causing enough mud for two. And yet out of that mud, they built us a house that became a home”
“I realized then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, we 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. Only then could we claim a destiny we did not feel cursed to”
“Some little girls grow up with fathers who are decent, kind and tenderly nested by their daughter’s heart. Other little girls grow up with no father at all, thus ignorant of good men and the not so good ones. The unluckiest of all little girls grow up with fathers who know how to make storms out of sunshine and blue skies. My mother was one such unlucky little girl and suffered the childhood you run away from. Except, if you have nowhere to run to”
“What do you do when the two people who are supposed to protect you the most are the monsters tearing you to pieces?”
“Your life is what makes you rich,’ they insisted. ‘The people you love and the people who love you back”
“Don’t let it happen to you, Betty. Don’t ever be afraid to be yourself. You don’t wanna live so long only to realize, you ain’t lived at all”
“One day, I told him, ‘God will turn out all the lights to remind people like you that in the dark, you won’t be able to tell who is white like you and who ain’t. We’ll have to treat one another equally. We’ll learn it’s not our skin that makes us different. And only when we learn that will God turn the lights back on”
“My heart is made of glass”
Oh Dear! That’s another full packet of tissues all used up, and I’m still a soggy broken heap!
I feel as though I have been on a terrifying journey which I didn’t particularly enjoy, which made me cringe, hang my head in shame, stirred my anger on more than one occasion, and yet a journey which I didn’t want to have to wake from and leave behind, with my many questions still unanswered.
What can I say about the sheer and stunning bravery of this story? How author, Tiffany McDaniel was able to put pen to paper and so maturely and masterfully record this heart-breaking family history, is beyond my emotional understanding and I have nothing but total respect and admiration for her and her mother, Betty.
I see this book as a work of important social, cultural and historical, literary fiction. Whether Tiffany would like it to be remembered as a work of fiction, a memoir dedicated to her mother, or a concept reflection of self-actualization, or maybe a little of each, is almost irrelevant in the scheme of things, so powerful a story that it is.
I feel almost voyeuristic in analysing life within this vulnerable family and these the pages of their tormented story, especially as I wouldn’t want to even begin to pass comment or judgement on any single conversation or event, which might be more fact than fiction; not knowing where fact stops and fiction begins, or vice versa.
Written throughout in the voice of a young Betty, this is truly and honestly, a coming of age story for her, although I felt that she was coming of age almost every day of her life, given the horrendous events she bore witness to, all the secrets she felt compelled to keep and the rollercoaster of emotions she had to quell and keep buried, to ensure that her dysfunctional family remained together, if not united, for as long as possible. To relieve some of the terrible tension and stress about the many things she had seen and heard, which no child should be subjected to, or the burden of others’ guilt she had to carry on her young shoulders, Betty writes everything down, usually as stories, which she then buries, but always safely, so that she can revisit them when daily life gets too much for her to bear and events from the past come back to haunt her anew.
Betty’s Cherokee father, Landon, is the bedrock of the family for Betty, and the axis on which it turns on a daily basis. Being the only one of his six living children who looks like him and is so akin to him in his outlook on life and family, Betty is so completely in tune with him, that I wondered just how many secrets there really were between them and how much Landon actually knew, but chose to close his eyes to, for fear of being overwhelmed, by the reality of his family’s life as it really was. Landon is Betty’s teacher about the ways of the past and her forefathers. He teaches both her and her siblings about their relationship with the land and how it can best provide for them. He tells stories which transport them to worlds miles away from the reality of their deprivation. That he loves them all and would lay down his own life for any one of them, is undoubted and unspoken, however they are all hanging on to life and family by the thinnest of thread and Betty’s mother, Alka is unable to offer little, if any, support to any one of them, especially Landon, so drowning is she in her own deep-seated grief, anger and despair.
There are one or two lighter moments, when to the innocent and unknowing bystander, life might almost appear ‘normal’ in the Carpenter household. However, gingerly begin to unpeel those tissue thin layers and the veneer begins to unravel quite quickly, into the chaos and heartache, which makes up everyday life. I have never come across a family with so many secrets, lies, deceit, self-denial, self-loathing and hatred, at its very core.
Alka is very much at the centre of each tragedy as it unfolds, as it is from her that the very core and essence of this family drama stems. At times I could have shaken her, for her lethargy, her unwillingness to interact with her children and offer them any motherly guidance, and her inability to contribute to the family unit in any tangible way, shape or form. Maybe if she had felt able to communicate with Landon, some of the tragedy might have been avoided, because I truly think he would have understood and probably supported her through her most difficult times. But as it is, I realise that she is simply a broken human being, both physically and mentally and who, unable to deal with life any more, continues to shut down at an alarming rate, as her condition deteriorates. Therefore, I think partially out of spite and partly because she simply doesn’t know what else to do, or where to turn, her innermost, most terrible secrets and thoughts are all placed firmly and squarely at Betty’s door, the youngest of her daughters, the one she resents the most because of her likeness to her father and the one she therefore chooses to burden, and against whom all of her vitriol and hate is directed.
This is a story of deprivation and abuse, written completely from the heart, with total confidence, authority and a desperate intensity, forming a narrative and dialogue which is compelling, vulnerable, yet truly lyrical in its quality. The intense enduring pain which emanates from this family is visceral, raw, gripping and disturbing, as they are each intent on self destruction and unable to comprehend the emotional and physical damage they are inflicting on themselves and everyone around them.
The wider detail outside the family home seems almost trivial by comparison, however not to tell of the small town prejudice, discrimination, verbal and physical abuse heaped upon the family as a whole, but Betty in particular, would be to allow people in authority, who should know better, to think they have got away with their bigoted beliefs and ideologies, and that would never do!
They do say that the ‘the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the sons’ and if you read this story right until the end, you will learn exactly what I mean. In the final devastating twist, it transpires that from one brutal, humiliating, depraved assault, perpetuated and repeated over many years, eight people’s lives are changed irrevocably forever. Only three will survive this maelstrom which spiralled out of control and engulfed them all, but what of them? – I guess only Tiffany really knows the answer to that question! However I became so invested in this story and the characters, that I would like to think that there is a small glimmer of hope for Betty and maybe a little peace in her final days for Alka, whilst Leland is in the right place for God to dish out the retribution he sees fit!!
A complimentary kindle download of this book, for review purposes, was made available by the publisher, and supplied by NetGalley
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!
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