Betty might be the saddest family novel of the year. Here's why you should still read it
There's a good chance you haven't read a family saga like Betty. While technically a novel, it borrows heavily from the very real ancestors of author Tiffany McDaniel: The title character is her own mother, the tragedies and crimes and beautiful moments all lore passed down to her. The family at the center of the novel consists of eight siblings born to a white mother and a Cherokee father during the mid-1900s in rural Ohio — an Appalachian town in every sense. Their story is simultaneously extraordinary (they are subjected to unthinkable racism, financial hardships, and untimely deaths) and run-of-the-mill (at the heart, they are a family like any other). Each day in their life is supplanted with the mysticism and interconnectedness of their father's traditions, offering a light at the end of a very dark plot tunnel.
The novel, a BEA buzz pick, is set for release on Aug. 18. Below, an excerpt lays the groundwork for the family readers will soon know intimately.
Excerpt from Betty, by Tiffany McDaniel
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
When the first snow of each new winter came, my mother would go into the parlor. It had the furniture our father had built in it, but when I remember her there, I see the space nearly empty. There are only the boards of the wooden floor scratched from when we had dragged furniture across or ran too hard or played with knives. I see the cotton curtains on each of the windows and I see the old wooden rocking chair the color of molasses. My mother sits in this chair after opening all the windows. She's wearing her prettiest housedress. A pale pink one with clusters of tiny cream and bright blue flowers. I'm certain the flowers count out to any odd number. She's barefoot. Her toes curl as she rests her right foot on top of her left.
Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the snow comes in. At first the flurries melt before they land. Then they pile lightly like dust, bringing their cold in. I can see my mother's breath and the way her skin prickles. This is winter to me. My mother sitting in a spring dress in the middle of the parlor while the snow comes in. Dad running in and closing the windows in between wrapping a blanket around her. The snow left to melt into little puddles on the wooden floor of the house on Shady Lane in Breathed, Ohio. This is winter to me. This is marriage.
Houses are built in the beginning by the father and the mother.
Some houses have roofs that never leak. Some are built of brick, stone, or wood. Some have chimneys, porches, a cellar and an attic, all built by the hands of the parents. Hands of flesh, bone, and blood. But other things, too. My father's hands were soil. My mother's were rain. No wonder they could not hold one another without causing enough mud for two. And yet out of that mud, they built us a house that became a home.
The eldest of us was born in 1939 on a day defined by the brownest of tones like a sepia photograph. This blue-eyed son was named Leland. From the moment he was born, they knew how little the child looked like his father and how much he looked like his mother.
"He's got her blonde hair." "Her paleness."
"Her cupid's bow."
With their new son, Mom and Dad decided to settle in Breathed, Ohio. It was the town Dad had grown up in after his family's move from Kentucky. He thought it would be a nice place to raise his own family. Never far from the river, Dad carried his infant son and briskly dunked him into the water as he would for each of us when we were born.
"So my children can be as strong as the river," he said.
Five years after Leland came Fraya, in 1944. Leland loved his little sister, but his love was like a bag on a vacuum, swelling with filth.
"God gave Leland to us to be our older brother," Fraya once said. "I can't think God was wrong."
When I remember Fraya, I conjure the blur of a thousand swinging lights. Particles that glint and glare before disappearing back to the black and to the buzzing I realize is the sound of bees.
"Sweet as honey," Fraya would say.
As she grew each passing year, Dad would hold up her arms. "You're my measurement," he told her. "You'll measure how far
apart everything grows in the garden and how far apart the fence posts will set."
"Why am I your measurement?" Fraya always asked, even though she knew what he was going to say.
"Because you're important." He would stretch her hands out to either side of her. "You're my centimeter, inch, and foot. The distance between your hands is the distance that measures everything between the sun and the moon. Only a woman can measure such things."
"Why?" Fraya asked to remind herself. "Because you're powerful."
In 1945, Fraya became an older sister when Yarrow was born. After Dad plunged Yarrow into the river, he caught a crawdad. He lightly scratched the crawdad's claw against Yarrow's palm.
"So you will always have a strong grip," Dad told Yarrow.
From that time on, Yarrow grabbed everything. Marbles. Pebbles. Beads from out of Dad's pocket. Yarrow would grip onto these things so tightly, Dad called him Crawdad Boy. I never got the chance to call him this myself. When he was two years old, the boy who picked everything up lay with his hands open to the sky beneath the buckeye tree in the yard. A nut was lodged in his throat. Perhaps he thought the nut, with its shiny brown exterior, was a piece of hard candy.
After he was covered with dirt sown with yarrow seeds, Mom and Dad packed up Leland and Fraya. They not only left Breathed, they left Ohio and all her skinned houses and bloodshot glory, as Dad would say. They couldn't bear to live in a state whose symbol was the buckeye tree.
Once they left, they moved from place to place. Mom seemed to get pregnant in one state, just to have the child in another. In 1948, she nearly died delivering Waconda on the bank of the Solomon River in Kansas. Dad reckoned the baby weighed fourteen pounds when she was born. The afterbirth came before Waconda. Dad tried to stuff it back in, or at least that's how the story goes.
The baby was named after the Waconda Spring, which once existed with the river and was visited by Indians of the Great Plains who believed the spring had sacred powers. Spirit Water. That's what her name translated to.
Our Spirit Water lived for ten days and cried for each of them. Dad said it was because the shadow of a falcon flying overhead had fallen on Waconda, giving her the falcon's cry. Dad tried to release the cry by rubbing Waconda's throat with an earthworm. Come night, Mom would rock Waconda, hoping to nurse her to sleep. Nothing seemed to help.
The day in question, Waconda was crying in her cradle. Dad was in the kitchen using cotton balls to pat black tea on his poison ivy to dry it up.
"Waconda, please be peaceful," he said. "All this cryin' is gonna give you a watery soul."
Mom was in the bedroom using a cotton ball to apply witch hazel to her face.
"Won't the child ever shut up?" Mom asked her reflection in the mirror.
Nine-year-old Leland and four-year-old Fraya were on the living room floor, making sheep out of more cotton balls.
"Waconda." They both shouted, covering their ears.
Then, it was quiet. In the silence, Waconda was found with a cot- ton ball stuffed into her mouth.
Three years later, in 1951, another daughter came into the family. She was named Flossie and was born on a staircase in California, the edges of the steps driving into Mom's back as she gripped a baluster with one hand, the other pressed flat against the wall. Not more than a minute after Flossie was born, Dad took a dry bean and rubbed it across her lips so she would be protected against the birds flying overhead and their shadows. He also pressed a pinecone into her forehead to wish her a long life, at least longer than Waconda's or Yarrow's.
Flossie was Mom's easiest delivery. "The girl came right out."
Flossie always was eager to make her grand entrance.
"Ain't no doubt I was born to be special, too," Flossie later said. "Most babies are born in some silly bed or the back of a stupid car. But me, I was born on a staircase. Like the one Gloria Swanson walked down in Sunset Boulevard," Flossie would say as she did her Swanson impression.
Despite it not being true, Flossie would claim she shared a birthday with Carole Lombard. Sometimes it was Lillian Gish, Irene Dunne, or Olivia de Havilland. In Flossie's mind, she was only ever a song and dance away from fame. In my mind, she was the girl born on a stair- case who then became a woman torn between taking a step up into the light or a step down into the dark.
"Come with me," she'd say, "if you want, Betty."
Betty. Little ol' me. I was born in 1954 in a dry claw-foot bathtub in Arkansas. When Mom went into labor on the toilet, the closest place she had to lay in was the tub. In the face of Flossie's jealousy, I was named after Bette Davis.
Dad said he had met the actress at a dance when they were both young enough to not have dancing partners yet.
"She made me so nervous," he said, "my belly filled up with butterflies. I could feel 'em flutterin' from one side of me to the other. It was like I had inhaled a wind that never settled. To calm myself, I drank the glass of milk Bette handed me. With her knowledge or without it, the milk was ill with whatever ills milk.
"Most of the butterflies managed to move out of the way, but there was one butterfly that got splashed by the milk. To have a nauseous butterfly in one's stomach is not a good idea." Dad rubbed his belly in remembrance. "To get rid of the butterflies, I left Bette Davis to the moon and took a walk through the woods. Without Ms. Davis, I wasn't nervous no more, so all the butterflies flew out except for the one sickened by the milk. This butterfly had a fever high enough to make me feel I had lit a candle in my stomach.
"I knew I had to do somethin' so I caught a small black spider and swallowed it whole. The spider did what I wanted it to do, which was spin itself a web between my rib bones. The butterfly got caught in that web and my belly was ever so happy. The spider is still inside me. My tummy is its home now. Some days I feel like I got more web than anything else in me, but I'll tell you this, I haven't had a bellyache since because all the bad I eat, the spider catches. I wonder if God shouldn't have given us all spiders in our stomachs."
Instead of having the same spelling as Bette Davis, my name was spelled with a y rather than an e because Dad said a y reminded him of a slingshot and of a snake with its mouth open.
It was the y in my name—along with the crown of black waves I came into this world with—that Dad said attracted the rattler into my cradle.
Hiss, hiss, speak, girl, speak.
A snake that slithers into a cradle is up to no good, at least that's what Dad said. The rattlesnake bit him when he removed it from under my blanket. After sucking the venom from his veins, Dad cut the snake's head off. He buried the head in a hole as deep as his arm. He said a prayer over the rest of the body to appease the snake's ghost, before cutting the tail off and making me a baby toy out of it.
Shake, shake, rattle, rattle, speak, speak.
My father's hair was black. His skin was brown like the beautiful mud-bottom rivers he swam in. Shadows lived in the angles of his cheeks. His eyes were the color of the powder he made out of walnut hulls. He gave these features to me. The earth stamped on my soul. On my skin. On my hair. On my eyes. He gave these things to me.
"Because you're Cherokee," Dad said to me when I was four and old enough to ask why folks called me dark.
"They'll call you worse, Betty," he said. "But what is cherry key?" I asked.
"Cherokee. Repeat after me. Cher-o-kee." He made his lips open funny when he said the o so I giggled.
"Cherry key," I said again, repeating it until I got it right. "But what is it?"
"Cherokee is you," he said, putting me on his lap.
From out of his pocket, he pulled a small piece of deerskin. "It looks like a dog's back." I petted the side that had fur.
"It does, don't it?" he asked before turning the skin over to point out the strange lettering written on the smooth side. The ink was blue and blurring on the edges, as if water was taking the writing away.
"This is what it looks like to write Cherokee, Betty," he said. "My momma was given this skin by her mother. Momma called it her breath because whenever she felt she was out of it, she would look at her mother's deerskin and at her mother's words and get her breath back. Momma would be able to breathe again."
He inhaled until his chest filled. When he let the breath go, he blew the small hairs around my crown.
"I can't read it." I ran my tiny fingers over the fading words. "They're written funny. What do they say?"
"They say don't forget who you are."
"Did your mother forget who she was?" I asked. "Is that why she needed to be reminded?"
"There used to be a time when people like us wouldn't be able to say we were Cherokee," he said. "We would have to say we were Black Dutch."
"A dark-skinned European."
"Why couldn't we say we were cherry key? I mean Cher-o-kee." "Because it had to be hidden."
"Cherokees were bein' moved off their land and onto reservations. If our people said they were Black Dutch, they were allowed to stay because someone of European roots could own land. But you can only lie to yourself for so long before it wears ya down. My daddy and momma had to say they were Black Dutch so often, it made Momma lose her breath. She had to remind herself who she truly was."
I looked up at him. "Who am I?" I asked.
"You're you, Betty," he said. "How can I be sure?"
"Because of who you come from. You come from great warriors." He laid his hand against my chest. "You come from great chiefs who led nations to both war and peace."
Then he would say "Tsa-la-gi," while holding my hands and writ- ing the word in the air with his.
I would sometimes dream of these ancestors. Of them taking my hands in theirs and rubbing our palms together until our skin peeled back like tree bark and I could speak like them in the old way. I would wake up, hold my palm to my ear, and try to hear their voices. I waited for these voices to beat me alive.
Two years after I was born, I became an older sister. My little brother Trustin was born in Florida in 1956. When Dad was dunking him in the river, a bass swam by and struck Trustin's backside. Dad said it would make his son a good swimmer. When Trustin got old enough, he would dive into the water. He loved the splash and the way the water spotted the rocks on the bank.
"It's like a paintin'," he said, always finding images in the splash marks. "The kind of paintin' that goes away when it dries. It reminds us nothin' lasts forever."
A year later, in 1957, Mom delivered another son they decided to name Lint. They said he was Mom's midlife crisis baby.
"It's why he has nothin' but rocks in his head and on his mind," Flossie would later say. "Mom's crisis seeped into him."
Trying to understand Lint was like trying to find your way out of dark woods. All we knew was that he became easily upset. If he ate too much or spoke too loudly, he worried we would send him away. He grew increasingly concerned Mom and Dad would not stay together. By the time he was eight, he was standing at the ironing board until his clothes were pressed enough for him to believe there were no wrinkles between Mom and Dad.
After Lint, Mom counted the stretched scars on her belly and said there were to be no more children.
With that, Dad took the placenta from Lint's birth and buried it six feet deep. He covered it with stones to ensure Lint would be the last. My father used to say that 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," he said, stretching his arms up over his head as we sat at his feet in wonder. "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."
He playfully scratched our arms until we laughed.
"Like spiders," he said, "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." He bent his fingers like spider legs before making a buzzing sound with his tongue against his teeth. "Bzzzzz. But too many are as bothersome as pesky attic flies. Bzzzzz." He flew his finger through the air.
"Bzzzzz." We moved our fingers with his.
"You'll need to watch out for those who spread gossip as easily as dandelions spread their seed," he said. "But really keep an eye on the ones who live on decay, like the fungus that grows on hurt or weak trees."
"What are we like, Dad?" I asked.
"Well, us Carpenters are like berries. Rich, juicy berries that grow deep in the woods. Berries that—"
"Give sorrow to all who wander by," Mom's voice overtook Dad's, "curious with taste."
Excerpted from BETTY by Tiffany McDaniel. Published August 18, 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Tiffany McDaniel.