A review by jeannelovesbooks
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
- Plot- or character-driven? Character
- Strong character development? It's complicated
- Loveable characters? No
- Diverse cast of characters? Yes
- Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes
Where I came from was a family of eight children. More than one of us would die in the prize-winning years of youth.’
Written by Tiffany McDaniel, the novel is based on her mother’s childhood in 1960s rural Appalachia. Betty, born to a white mother and Cherokee father, is the only Carpenter child who shares her father’s dark hair and complexion. For this she is relentlessly bullied; at school, in the community, and by her own family. Meanwhile the extent of tragedy - murder, rape, accidents, abuse - that befalls the Carpenter family is nothing short of rampant.
Deeply disturbing, Betty’s an unforgettable read. But both its brilliance and its shortcomings stem from the fact it’s a family memoir. Imagine writing an exposé of your family’s darkest secrets, with dear old Mum as the central protagonist. And she’s still alive, which is remarkable given her upbringing but tricky territory to navigate. The challenge lies in portraying the victims & perpetrators as anything other than heroes & villains and consequently some family members, Betty included, are curiously one-dimensional. Another issue is the freedom, or lack of, to deviate from the family script. Without a narrative arc, we get A Series of Unfortunate Events interspersed with brief moments of respite which typically focus on Betty and her father, Landon. The pattern became so predictable that after every heart-warming exchange I steeled myself for the next onslaught.
The brilliance lies in the author’s descriptive powers. Mum’s accounts of abuse include details so cruel and calculated there’s no doubting their authenticity. The sense of time and place is vividly imagined and the sheer resilience of Betty and her own mother Alka is inspiring. For me this was Alka’s story. Ordeal heaped upon ordeal and somehow she soldiered on.
The author evidently shares the same strength. Apparently the first agents she approached refused to believe that the women in her family had experienced such abuse. Thank goodness she persevered because memoirs as powerful and hard-hitting as this have the potential to break the taboos that force silence on so many girls and women.
Graphic: Abortion, Addiction, Adult/minor relationship, Animal cruelty, Animal death, Bullying, Child abuse, Child death, Death, Domestic abuse, Drug abuse, Homophobia, Hate crime, Incest, Miscarriage, Murder, Physical abuse, Pregnancy, Racism, Rape, Sexual assault, and Sexual content