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A mother’s joys and awful secrets, passed down through a daughter’s fiction

"Betty," a novel by Tiffany McDaniel.
(Alfred A. Knopf)

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Nearly 20 years ago, Tiffany McDaniel’s mother, Betty, told her a family secret. To say the rest is history would be an egregious cliche if it weren’t the simple truth. McDaniel’s vivid new novel, “Betty,” fictionalizes that history, drawn in part from her own interviews with her mother, her grandmother Alka and other family members.

Set mostly during the 1960s in the fictional town of Breathed, nestled in the very real foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Ohio, “Betty” is a coming-of-age story that begins not with the birth of its narrator but with her parents’ fateful meeting. “[Betty] is someone who has surpassed the age of her mother and father. Someone who is the last of her family,” McDaniel wrote in an email. “I wanted her voice to be aged by wisdom, experience and the blessings and the curses of the past.”

McDaniel first wrote “Betty” when she was 18, and although she kept revising it based on her research, she gauged the interest of literary agents early on. The feedback she got was consistently sexist: Writing about bras and periods would make readers uncomfortable; Betty and her sisters should have romantic relationships; maybe Betty could be a boy, because “Male narrators sell better.”

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Tiffany McDaniel, author of the novel "Betty."
(Jennifer McDaniel)

It likely didn’t help that Betty is a working-class brown girl (her mother white, her father Cherokee) in a conservative white town, living with the silence and shame that surrounds sexual violence in her family. Based in part on McDaniel’s mother’s upbringing, “Betty” follows a girl growing up with blessings and curses: Her profound connection with nature and a creative drive but also the trauma caused by racism and a legacy of abuse that leaves few of her relatives untouched.

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Despite its basis in truth, many agents simply didn’t believe “Betty.” One even told McDaniel it was implausible that “the women would each have these terrible experiences. He had said he could imagine one woman having them, but for them all to have experienced abuse was something he didn’t think was real.”

In fact, teen girls are four times more likely to be victims of rape or assault than the general population and those in poverty likelier still. In a place and time that demonized women’s role in their own sexual assault, it’s quite easy to imagine several women in the same family staying quiet about their experiences. McDaniel believes the #MeToo movement helped make space for a novel like “Betty” by bringing to light just how common abuse really is, creating “a more welcoming and supportive environment for individuals to feel they can share their stories.”

Interviewing relatives in service of a novel can be a tricky proposition, but McDaniel’s mother, grandmother and aunts willingly told their stories and were eager for the author, in turn, to share them with the world through her fiction. “When you hold on to things for decades, it can be a relief to be free of that weight,” McDaniel said. Alka hadn’t told anyone about what was done to her for many years. “If there had been those who spoke openly about abuse, and if it was something addressed in communities, Mamaw would have known that what her parents were doing was wrong,” McDaniel said.

Balancing the darkness and violence in “Betty” is Landon Carpenter, Betty’s father, who serves as a moral compass and source of comfort to her and her siblings, nurturing them in ways their erratic, often angry mother cannot. Betty has also picked up her father’s attentiveness to the world around him, and the book is rich with the texture of everyday living. It’s these details that sing “Betty” to life and bring readers fully into the Appalachian landscape and the social milieu of Breathed. McDaniel asked her family about those details as well: What did they do for fun growing up? What did they talk about around the dinner table? And what were the seasons like?

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“What I discovered about their day-to-day [was that it] wasn’t so different from my own upbringing,” McDaniel said. “Chatter in the kitchen, family recipes on the counter, the talk of the seasons and the weather.” McDaniel’s mom taught her and her sisters the skills passed down from her own father (the real-life Landon) — how to garden, how to jar and preserve. “Sometimes it’s through the everyday tasks that we say the most to one another.”

A senior class photo of Tiffany McDaniel's mother, Betty, whose family stories inspired McDaniel's novel, "Betty."
(Tiffany McDaniel.)

While McDaniel never got to meet the real Landon, who died before she was born, she seems deeply moved by what she knows. She was raised with an understanding of her own heritage, including the Cherokee people’s historically matrilineal and matriarchal structure before colonization. In “Betty,” she wrote Landon as a man destined to be a father, who worked especially hard to give his daughters armor against the restrictive white, patriarchal world.

“Papaw was someone who was not afraid to show emotion, not afraid to cry, not afraid to be vulnerable,” McDaniel told me. “And he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the strength and power of the women around him. He had been raised by strong Cherokee women, women who remembered what society had been like when they had an equal voice in it.”

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He would surely have appreciated McDaniel’s own contributions in the arena of fiction. Landon and his daughter Betty connect deeply not only because she’s the child who most closely resembles him — and who, like him, bears the brunt of racist slurs, mockery and violence from the town’s white Christian populace — but also because she is a burgeoning writer.

“Papaw was a beautiful storyteller,” McDaniel said, ready with a story for every situation. Some of the tales in “Betty” are drawn from her family memories or from Cherokee stories passed down through generations; others are her own inventions.

“I wanted to merge my myths with Papaw’s,” McDaniel said. “It’s through story that I feel most connected to him.” Landon (both real and fictional) tells stories to strengthen his family; McDaniel wrote “Betty” to honor hers.

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Masad is a books and culture critic and author of “All My Mother’s Lovers.”


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