When I was little, I would quietly tell myself “I will only read for half an hour before bed”. I would settle down, and three hours later I would blearily turn off my lamp and pass out in my bed. Recently, I have enlisted my old troops of soft pages, stories and paperbacks in my quest to gently fall to sleep.
The book I have read recently was Betty by Tiffany McDaniel.
This book is based on a true story about a young Native American girl called Betty, and her coming of age story battling sexism, racism, and her family’s deepest secrets. The themes of this book are so haunting that it took nearly 20 years until it was published; it was claimed to be “too feminist”. If that is one’s only takeaway, then one has a limited perspective on literature.
Betty is haunting, uplifting and touching. There are so many things I could say about this book and all the important themes within it. But I will settle with one; grief and loss.
As many of you know, I have a careful quest in my heart of finding depictions of grief that are honest, raw, healing. I didn’t realize I had these criteria for a long time, until I would see grief depictions that were the opposite of these and I would feel that familiar anger stirring within me.
Betty and her father’s relationship was a kind, loving, encouraging one, deeply entrenched in pride for their family history as Cherokee Native Americans. Through all the racism Betty experiences, her father marks out a path for her to navigate that allows her to feel admiration and pride in her Cherokee history, despite all that is happening to her; from having her skirt lifted up to check she has a tail, to experiencing racial slurs.
Throughout the book, loss is gently written into her father’s character. He lives for his children, and upon their passing away, he lives for their memories. He hangs windchimes to give Yarrow and Waconda (who had very short lives) a voice in the present day. He and his children carry his son’s body to the churchyard. Himself and Betty spread Fraya’s ashes together. His heart is referred to as a bird in a glass cage. The pain he experiences cracks his heart, until the bird can fly out.
What I love about Betty is the strength, but also the fragility, written into these characters. Each of them are admirable in their own rights; they are undoubtedly capable and fierce but each of them has streak of loss in their stories. Betty and her father do not suppress what they are going through; they find various methods of coping, whether that’s writing, carving wood or helping others. Yet, they are still vulnerable and that in itself is a power.
For me, it was completely unexpected for Betty’s father to pass away. Like Betty, I just assumed this beautiful, stoic man would live forever. He is a cornerstone of this book and Betty’s life. To have one without the other felt as impossible for the reader, as it did for Betty. Looking back, I am not quite sure how I didn’t see his passing coming. Yet perhaps this book is written so well that I feared for it coming, and so I nestled it down and tried not to think about it, the same way I did for my own mum’s mortality. The same way every child tries not to consider parental loss.
However, upon reflection, I can see that this book was written to lead up to Landon’s passing the whole time. He carefully told his children stories of their ancestors, Cherokee gardening methods, his own methods, Cherokee histories, tales and how to cope with life.
He was preparing Betty for his loss, without her realising.
Within the novel, rivers are a motif which is frequently returned to. Landon tells Betty that “no water is ever at rest.” The final moment of the story is the conclusion that Betty draws upon her father’s loss. She says that the ripples of his death will never weaken; he is everywhere in the plants he educated her about, the lessons he taught her and the landscapes they explored together. What I love about this book in particular, is the presence of grief. It is not presented as a process that comes to a close, it is presented a new way of living.
When I turned the last page and shut the book, I wanted to cry. My heart thumped and my veins beat with adrenalin. It has been quite a while that paper and ink has had such a response in me.
I often question whether I think of mum too much. Whether I see her too much. Whether I visit her in my mind too much. But no water is ever at rest. Especially when such momentous people like Landon and my mum leave such ripples in life.
The thing in particular, however, that shook my world at 3am in the morning, is that this book is written by Betty’s daughter. She never met Landon, yet she describes him and his history with rich detail. It gave me hope for the fact that I have the power to help others know my mum as deeply as Tiffany knows her grandfather. There are so many layers to this book, it was a true pleasure to investigate each one.
Betty reached into my soul and brought renewed vigour, emotions and memories out. Thank you, Tiffany McDaniel. I have no words.
What books, films, Tv shows (or anything else!) make you learn about your own grief? What was the last story you consumed that accurately depicted loss?