I’m not sure what made me pick this one up. I know it was a while ago that it came across my radar, because at the time, I put in a request with the library for them to purchase the audiobook, since none of my local ones had it. And I know myself…whatever review said this was amazing that made me want to read it, it also gave enough detail that I knew I’d need the audio to move me through it. Lyrical writing is wonderful, but I prefer to listen to it, to help me keep moving and not get all caught up in the words and reading pace so slow that it’s discouraging and I want to stop. So anyways, I requested the audiobook be purchased…and it took so long for that to happen that I forgot I had requested it. When I got an email saying it was ready for me, it was a super random (happy) surprise!
Betty is a coming-of-age novel centered on the titular character, Betty. Born to a white mother and a Cherokee father, raised in rural Ohio during, at least for the majority of the time this novel focuses on, the 1960s, Betty’s family is everything to her. Though her older brother, Leland, is off on his own now, she is very close to the rest of her siblings: Fraya, musical and quiet and the oldest left in the home, Flossie, close to her age and exact opposite in temperament, Trustan, and artist and adventurous younger brother, and young Lint, sweet and thoughtful but with a speech disability and some other peculiarities that set him apart. And then there’s her parents, her mother, Alka, who swings between being nurturing and harmful towards her children, and her father, Landon, who tells her stories and encourages her and keeps their family moving forwards and teaches them all connection with the earth and their Cherokee traditions. Betty herself is a budding writer, a young girl who is searching for her place in the world, sees and hears (perhaps) more than she should, and struggles with some of the prescribed rights and wrongs that she sees and how the reality of them doesn’t always fit (or play out as) she feels they should, morally. We take a meandering, thoughtful, and sometimes traumatic journey through Betty’s early life with her and watch as her experiences shape the adult that she decides to become.
That was a super character-expositive description of this novel, because honestly, the characters are its everything. I mean, things happen, sure: some dramatic, some heartbreaking, some frustrating, and some deeply sweet and touching. But also, what happens is all just…life. Like there is no plot twist or framing story or anything like that, rather it’s just the same day-to-day and year-to-year survival and occasional flourishing that I am sure we can all find common ground in, when looking back at the “mundanity” that is each person’s individual life story. And yet, this is one of the most compelling stories of “just life” that I’ve ever read. Each of Betty’s family members is unique and nuanced in their development and characterization, each with their own quirks of the type that are often shown only to those closest to you. And each with their own bright spots and trials and tragedies.
To this end, it must be noted that this book comes with myriad content warnings, vivid and impossibly-difficult descriptions of violence, suicide attempt/mental illness, racism, child sexual abuse (and the resulting lifelong trauma of that, and many of the ways it can manifest), substance misuse, animal and child death, and likely more that I am missing. While the opening two thirds of the story and development hold the edges of darkness, the foreshadowing of terrible secrets threatening to spill out, when it finally overflows onto the page, the starkness of one traumatic event after another, makes the final third a jump from tragedy to tragedy that almost became too hard to continue to witness. This is not a reading to be undertaken lightly.
As to the writing, it was every bit as lyrical as I’d been promised. Interestingly, it was even a soft sort of lyricism, one that lulled the reader into a sense of comfort through the deep and pervasive sense of place (physical location and in belonging with a family/home), despite the darkness and intensity of many of the topics and realities it touched on. It must be said that a major reason for that softness came from the presence of Betty’s father, Leland. The space he held while on-page throughout this novel was a tangible one, balancing the harshness of everything else with the safety in a father’s support and love, shown through his actions and words; his stories, of nature and Cherokee culture and more, were simply of a gorgeous and expansive imagination. They carried you away, as the reader, and you could see how they could also help Betty, and the rest of her siblings, figure out surviving too. Watching Leland’s stories show Betty a way to deal with and process that complex mix of being poor, female, indigenous (darker-skinned than her classmates and most of her siblings too) was emotional, but in the kind of good heart-squeezing way, where you know it’s not actually fixing things, but at the same time, it’s giving her a lifeline.
This was a devastating reading experience. It’s an ode to a place, the nature and land of Ohio’s hills and woods. It’s a nod to the women, the indigenous peoples, the reality of poverty, and any combinations therein, that have survived these myriad sufferings. It’s haunting in its cruelty, but also in the shine-through moments of family and belonging and natural beauty. This is a sort of family saga, but zoomed in on a single character, during the few years of her growing up that shaped her the most. It’s a sort of origin story for Betty, on that held that sort of folklore-ish feel to the writing, both for Betty and, truly, for the mythical place her father held in her life. I realized that in that last few lines, which were downright perfect, by the way, as they both ended and began something, the way any good legend does.
“But you can only lie to yourself for so long before it wears ya down.”
“My father used to say when a child is born, their very first breath is sent on the wind to become a plant or insect, a creature of feathers, fur, or scales. He would say that this human and this life are bound together as a reflection of one another. 'There are folks always reachin' for the sky, too large for our world, like giant sequoias [...] Some people are as beautiful and soft as peonies, others as hard as a mountain. You'll come across those who are so unforgettable, they'll leave a rash on your memory as poison ivy does your skin. [...] Like spiders, [...] there are folks who can't stop spinnin' webs in life, either through the work of their tongues or through the work of their hands. [...] But too many are as bothersome as pesky attic flies. [...] You'll need to watch out for those who spread gossip as easily as dandelions spread their seed [...] But really keep an eye on the ones who live on decay, like the fungus that grows on hurt or weak trees."
"Everything we need to live a life as long as we're allowed has been given to us in nature [...] That's not to claim if you eat this plant, you will never die, for the plant itself will one day die, and you are no more special than it. All we can do is try to heal the things that can be healed and ease the complaints of the things that cannot be. At the very least, we bring the earth inside us and restore the knowledge that even the smallest leaf has a soul.”
"I realized then that not only 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.”
“Women [...] God made us from the rib of man. That has been our curse ever since. Because of it, men have the shovel and we have the land. It's right between our legs. There, they can bury all their sins. Bury 'em so deep, no one knows about 'em except for them and us.”
“Boys are like that. Always tryin' to pretend they're savin' girls from somethin'. They never seem to realize, we can save ourselves.”
"Why we have to bleed to earn it? [...] What happens when we get old and it stops? What then? We stop bein' a woman? Ain't the blood that defines us. It’s our soul.”
“My sister was just another girl doomed by politics and ancestral texts that say a girl's destiny is to be wholesome, obedient, and quietly attractive, but invisible when need be. Nailed to the cross of her own gender, a girl finds herself between the mother and the prehistoric rib, where there's little space to be anything other than a daughter who lives alongside sons but is not equal to them. These boys who can howl like tomcats in heat, pawing their way through a feast of flesh, never to be called a slut or a whore like my sister was.”
“When a man is buried, that should be the end of his sins, don’t you think?”
“I think between the two of them they could have been pretty good at love. Too bad grief made myths of everything.”
“I had spent the majority of my coming-of-age desiring to see a different reflection. I could either abandon the doubts I beheld and be free, or else dwell in the eye of the prejudied, to be chained there. There are too many enemies in life to be one of yourself.”
“I had come to realize that buried secrets are just seeds that grow more sin.”
“No matter how beautiful the pasture, it is the freedom to choose that makes the difference between a life lived and a life had.”
“A girl comes of age against the knife, Betty. [...] 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. May you have the strength.”
Graphic: Gaslighting, Hate crime, Incest, Rape, Racism, Religious bigotry, Sexual assault, Animal death, Bullying, Child abuse, Death, Emotional abuse, Grief, Gun violence, Pedophilia, Racial slurs, Suicidal thoughts, Alcohol, Animal cruelty, Blood, Body shaming, Child death, Colonisation, Cultural appropriation, Cursing, Death of parent, Injury/Injury detail, Mental illness, Murder, Physical abuse, Pregnancy, Sexual content, Violence, Classism, Sexual violence, Sexual harassment, Suicide attempt, Toxic relationship, Vomit, Xenophobia, and Abortion
Moderate: Medical content, Addiction, Ableism, and Fire/Fire injury