This devastating account of a Cherokee woman's life is an ode to the beauty and power of storytelling.
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BOTM Editorial Team
What kind of quarantine reader are you? Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been vacillating between extreme reading moods. Some days I reach for something light and happy to give me hope. Others I reach for an otherworldly story to escape into something new. And some days I want something dark, probing, and real—something that articulates all that is beautiful and tragic about being a human, at a time when we mostly experience one another’s humanity through screens.
It was during one of those latter moods that I read Betty, a lyrical and—in full disclosure—heartbreaking novel inspired by the life of the author’s mother. Betty is the daughter of a Cherokee father and a white mother. Born into a family burdened by poverty and by a dark past, Betty finds solace in writing. Through her stories, we learn about her love for the Appalachian landscape, her loyalty to her sisters, and the cruel realities of life in her community and her home.
This is not an easy read. Betty’s life is marked by violence and hardship as much as it is by love. If you’re looking for a fun escape, you won’t find that here; but what you will find is a moving, detailed portrait of a woman, rendered in sentences so lovely you might find yourself underlining every other phrase. Betty is a tribute to the author’s mother, but it’s also a tribute to the power of story. And at a time when books are keeping us company where our fellow humans cannot, what message could be more resonant?
Born in a bathtub in 1954 to a Cherokee father and white mother, Betty Carpenter is the sixth of eight siblings. The world they inhabit is one of poverty and violence—both from outside the family, and also, devastatingly, from within. The lush landscape, rich with birdsong, wild fruit, and blazing stars, becomes a kind of refuge for Betty, but when her family's darkest secrets are brought to light, she has no choice but to reckon with the brutal history hiding in the hills, as well as the heart-wrenching cruelties and incredible characters she encounters in her rural town of Breathed, Ohio.
But despite the hardship she faces, Betty is resilient. Her curiosity about the natural world, her fierce love for her sisters, and her father's brilliant stories are kindling for the fire of her own imagination, and in the face of all she bears witness to, Betty discovers an escape: she begins to write. She recounts the horrors of her family's past and present with pen and paper and buries them deep in the dirt—moments that has stung her so deeply, she could not tell them, until now.