THE PLOT: ‘Betty’ by Tiffany McDaniel is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl with Cherokee heritage. Born in 1954, Betty is the middle child in a large family. Her white mother resents her Cherokee father because, despite his hard work, he cannot provide for the family. However, her father may not be wealthy, but he is rich in knowledge of nature. The family settles in a small-town house that is claimed to be haunted. But the real terror is the cruel treatment of Betty’s family by the white community. As the houses’ curse seems to land on each child, Betty protects her siblings and attempts to keep the family together.
RATING: This is a beautiful novel which is five-stars to its very soul. Despite the central core of multi-generational trauma, it is a story of love. Betty’s love for her father and siblings and the land they inhabit in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. There is also a larger theme about women, feminism and sisterhood. As the novel winds through the 50s and 60s, the sexual violence done to women, explicitly and implicitly, and the inequality between sexes sharpens. In particular, the motif of the matriarchal Cherokee society brings these injustices into sharp relief. Yes, this is a story with grief, pain and hurt, but it is a layered narrative about nature, family and self-belief.
GOOD BITS: A key plot point in this novel is that Betty has most inherited her father’s looks, with dark skin and dark hair. People call her an ‘injun squaw’, ‘redskin’ and ‘ni**er’. Therefore, her character arc – where she starts as a young child desperate to be white, blonde and beautiful – develops as she must learn to see the beauty inside herself. This is heartbreaking but beautiful to read.
Overall, I think it’s a very balanced novel. There is absolutely stunning description and if you like writing that encapsulates the natural worlds, this is for you. But the gorgeous, lyrical prose did not overshadow the amazingly rounded characters or the theme of trauma inflicted on women.
Finally, I also loved how each family member had a clear character arc. There are several sad moments and characters in this novel, but surprisingly I only cried towards the end. No spoilers, but – of all the siblings – I cried the most for Flossie. Betty is wise and special and magical, but there are hundreds and thousands of Flossie’s. And that’s why she is such a great and pathetic character.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: N/A
OVERALL: This book is perfection. It straddles literary fiction and “women’s” fiction, as it blends high-art in the descriptions and style, yet has commercial character arcs and an engaging plot. I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart, ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver or ‘Chinese Cinderella’ by Adeline Yen Mah.