"Betty" by Tiffany McDaniel

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In Tiffany McDaniel’s powerful new novel “Betty,” we become privy to the childhood and coming-of-age of the eponymous character. When very young, she moved around with her family, but they settle finally in the hills of southern Ohio. “Betty” is the story of how this young girl deals with the sins which men commit against the girls and women in their families, and how she rises above them, having acquired wisdom beyond her tender years. By turns homespun and horrific, this novel carries pride, sorrow, love, malice, and the resilient human spirit, and serves them up to the reader in a memorable, beautiful whole. 

Betty is her father’s daughter, through and through. She inherits his dark Cherokee pigment, and he inculcates Native wisdom and understanding in her, particularly as it relates to the significance of the natural world, and how it can heal. Delivered in plain speech and fanciful art, this instruction aligns perfectly with the countrified pallet in which McDaniel paints her tableaux. All dialogue has a rural twang and inflection; and Betty has siblings named Fraya, Trustin, Flossie, and Lint. She suffers racial prejudice in the 1950s and 60s, even to some extent from her mother and sisters, who don’t share her rich coloring. 

Women suffer at the hands of the men in their family throughout the novel; Betty witnesses some of it first-hand, and learns of other episodes from her mother. She rails against not only the cruelty and injustice but also she hates the culture of silence enabling and perpetuating the sin. This pall colors and stains the life of this spirited girl; she can’t stand it, and neither can we. Ultimately, Betty delivers herself, wise to so many ways of the world, from this childhood, and ends up meeting a character from McDaniel’s remarkable first novel, “The Summer That Melted Everything.” One wonders if we will hear more of these characters in the future. 

Stunningly spirited, unbowed by all she has witnessed, loved dearly by her gentle father, Betty is a hard, determined plug of gristle, a take-no-quarter fighter, and at the same time a fond believer in sweet dreams. She befriends some of the town’s castoffs, and learns something of herself in the process. She can’t help her strong subversive streak, and it might just be the thing that saves her. Betty the character will live in your imagination as it will in mine. 

McDaniel has followed up “The Summer That Melted Everything” with a stunning, masterful second effort. In her writing she again shows no fear in displaying all the treachery and predation of her story - she has no mercy and tolerates no nonsense. A little like Betty herself. This author demonstrates a crystal clear vision in this area, and has also shown a very deft hand at drawing characters and family interaction. 

Even while steeped in folklore, this is fine, unflinching work. It rewards its reader with a rich, nuanced, well-paced story, with a very, very sympathetic heroine, all set in a memorable picture of rural American life. I urge you to reap these rewards.