Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Books I've loved: Betty


Several years ago an author emailed me out of the blue offering me the opportunity to read her book via NetGalley.  At that point I'd never used NetGalley, but the book sounded interesting and I am pre-disposed to helping out any author who reaches out to me.  The author was Tiffany McDaniel and her book was called The Summer that Melted Everything.  At the time I struggled a bit with NetGalley and I don't think I managed to get my review in on time which was a shame because it was beautifully written and I enjoyed the language very much.

So when I found this new book by McDaniel, I pounced on it right away.  And boy am I glad I did!

Based on her own family's history, Betty is a gritty, often dark, but also very funny book about an eccentric family.  Betty is one of eight children and her coming of age story is entwined with those of her siblings even when she doesn't fully understand what is happening with them.

Their father is Cherokee, and his culture's myths and legends coupled with his own eccentric brand of storytelling winds through Betty's understanding of the world.  These stories are like the myths ancient civilizations used to explain the parts of life that could not otherwise be explained, but here, they are specific to the life Betty and her family struggle to carve out on the outskirts of a small Appalachian town.

The book starts before Betty's birth and shows how her parents got together - an unlikely pairing, yet one that seems to have worked - then follows them as they start a family, lose several children to accidents and misfortune, and have more.

The characters are so beautifully drawn in this book, each with their own unique personality, characteristics and mannerisms.  And each with their own distinct way of coping with the darkness that seems to constantly lurk on the edges of their existence.

This is not in any way a joyful book.  The lives these people live are difficult and tragedy strikes quickly and often.  Yet somehow Betty manages to survive the trauma and find new ways to live with it.  That she's a writer from a young age probably helps.  She often writes about the difficult things happening around her, the things she knows but can't talk about, and buries the pages in the earth.  

I loved this book and despite its darkness.  Betty's headstrong nature and her resilience in the face of so much tragedy was inspiring and I feel like a lot of people could learn from her attitude to life.

But don't just listen to me.  Here's the blurb:

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.

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