There are spoilers in the post below. If you haven’t read Betty, talk a look at my book review here, which is spoiler free.
Book club has come and gone, and I still want to talk about Betty by Tiffany McDaniel. This book has so much to unpack and discuss. I’m not doing it justice with just a simple book review. If you haven’t read Betty, I cannot recommend it enough. This book will change your life.
I could sit here and write for ages about all of the different elements of this novel, but for the sake of time (and attention span), I’m going to focus on three that stood out to me. Depending on your background and experiences, you may have walked away from the book with different thoughts on Betty’s story, and I would love to hear from you and talk about it. The layers of Betty are so many that, like following roots from a tree, no one comes out in the very same place or has the same path.. That’s what is so beautiful about it.
The Journey from Girl to Woman
Each woman in this novel considers her transition to womanhood differently. For most of the women this revolves around losing their virginity and how the loss of childhood or innocence brings you fully into adulthood. The problem with this idea, as is seen many times throughout the novel, is that womanhood can be thrust upon you without your consideration or consent.
Betty’s mother, Alka, is forced into womanhood when her father rapes her. I see this more as a forcible removal of her innocence, which in turn can transition to her shifting from girl to woman. Alka’s father removed her ability to see the world through the eyes of a child.
Alka no longer has a flowery vision of the world, and she ensures that her daughters do not either. It’s hard to stomach the stories she tells and the way she talks to her daughters, but it’s almost as if she’s trying to prepare them for something she knows is coming – heartbreak.
Much like her mother, Fraya doesn’t have a choice when her brother Leland rapes her, ultimately causing her to grow up faster than any of her other siblings. She is taking care of her younger siblings like she is their mother (often criticized by their mother for it) and even terminates a pregnancy with the bark of a tree at a young age.
Flossie, Betty’s other sister, makes casual mention of the boy who took her virginity, who told Flossie she owed him. But with Flossie it’s almost as if she expects this, like somehow being raped is how a girl properly loses her virginity. To me, this is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the sexual violence throughout – most of the woman accept this as the standard and what should be expected and experienced.
“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.” (Betty, p. 279)
Betty, despite being the youngest and, one would naturally assume, the most impressionable, doesn’t accept the prevalent rape and sexual assault as her own fate. She’s telling this poetic story, and very clearly influenced by her family around her. We see her try to change the color of her hair and cake on make-up to try and make herself look like her siblings. But, when it comes abusive from men, she refuses to give in to the standard or what her mother and sisters would probably argue is inevitable.
Betty stands strong and decides her own path, from standing up for herself when confronted by her principal to telling the young boy “no” when he tries to touch her breast. We see her journey to womanhood, not through one traumatic incident that yanks her away from childlike innocence, but throughout a personal voyage through individual lessons, stories, events, and ultimately coming to grips with the reality of her family.
The most stark example of this transition, in my opinion, is when she finally confronts her brother, Leland, and tells him she knows he raped Fraya and he had no right to use her like that. She threatens him with a shotgun, reveals that his biological father is really the grandfather, and eventually scares him off so that he never returns. In this moment we see her finally use her voice to confront the demons in her family.
Her bravery, strength, and refusal to lie and hide away the secrets of the past are powerful and inspiring.
Taking It to the Grave
Secrets. They are sprinkled throughout the pages, but we begin to see a change in Betty as she decides not to take the stories of her family – the lies, the secrets, and even the happiness – to the grave with her. She sees the impacts secrets have on those around her and the damage that can be done.
Most apparent are Alka and Fraya. Alka held the secret of the rape by her father, and the aid of her mother in these endeavors, close to her chest her entire life, but she decided to tell Betty. It brings perspective and protectiveness for Betty and how she interacts with and takes care of her mother. She sees this woman, who has endured the unimaginable, begin to unravel.
Then, of course, there are the secrets Fraya kept close – Leland constantly raping her and the forced abortion that almost took her life. Fraya, despite a few moments where she understandably falls apart, is one of the most resilient characters I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She did not let these pieces of her life become her whole existence. She moved away from home, got a job, wrote songs, and, in the end, was talking about leaving their small town in Ohio behind to start a new life. Although Betty never helped Fraya confront the truth about Leland when she was alive, Betty promises to tell her story in the end.
“‘The only guilty one is you. And one day, when I write this story, you’ll open the book and find small slivers of mirror. Not everywhere, just over the names I’ve given the devil. When you collect the slivers and out them together, it’ll be your reflection that you see…’” (Betty, p. 441)
Loss and Heartbreak
The last topic I felt couldn’t be ignored is the constant presence of death, loss, and heartbreak throughout this novel. Aside from the rape and prejudice and racism throughout, there is so much death. Betty seems to be constantly saying goodbye to family members from her infant siblings she never met to her brother and sisters to a grandfather she hated.
This is where Landon Carpenter, Betty’s father, really shines through. He dedicated his life to his family. He met a woman in a cemetery, thought he got her pregnant, and in that moment just decided it was his job and he would love them and care for them until the day he died. Other than Betty, he is the most spectacular person in this story. Watching the relationship between Betty and her father develop is so amazing to watch. He holds her up and I think, ultimately, he’s how she makes it through to the end – growing stronger along the way.
“‘When I took a step forward, the hands took it with me. I realized then that the whole time I thought I’d been walking alone, my father had been with me. Supportin’ me. Steadyin’ me. Protectin’ me, best he could. I know I had to be strong enough to stand on my own two feet. I had to step out of my father’s hands and pull myself up out of the mud. I thought I would be scared to walk the rest of my life without him, but I know I’ll never really be without him because each step I take, I see his handprints in the footprints I leave behind.’” (Betty, p. 452)
Betty loses her brother Trustin, sister Fraya, sister Flossie, and her father Landon – all while trying to find her place in the world. Her whole world was crumbling around her and somehow she came out at the end stronger and more resilient. She is someone I hope to be like. I will spend the rest of my life trying to be more like Betty.
Have you read Betty? Let me know what stood out to you about the novel. This is definitely one I will be talking about for years to come.