This is categorized as a memoir, but it’s really a love letter–and a confession. Bettyville is a love letter to Hodgman’s parents. This might be expected of his mother, based on the title (his mother is Betty), but it’s also a love letter to his father, Big George. It’s a love letter to his hometown, Paris (Missouri) and to the life of all small Midwestern towns full of farmers and church-going hardworking folks. It’s not a love letter with blinders, and this is where the confessional element comes in. As Hodgman shares his love for his parents and hometown, he also unravels how complicated that love is, due in large part to his being gay in an era when no one in smalltown Midwest anywhere had heard of Pride. What is amazing, given his story and his struggles, is that Hodgman loves the people who would not accept him, who made him shear off parts of himself that he spends his adult life trying to put back together (or realizing that he needs to).
Hodgman’s prose is poetic. His is one of those books that I read and re-read passage after passage, line after line because the language itself is stunning. This is not entirely surprising given that Hodgman spent years editing others’ work. Those years paid huge dividends in Bettyville.
When his father, who never mentioned or accepted Hodgman’s sexuality, dies:
“I flew at 6am the morning after he died. At home, I felt his presence. The place was filled with him, as it had been, though he was missing and his big chair, where I had last seen him, empty. Near his workbench, I spotted two gifts, handmade, left for me to find: The first was a small cube with photographs glued on every side. To keep the pictures safe, to make them last, a coat of polish had been carefully applied. The photographs, views of our backyard at different times through the year, showed the way it looks in snow, in springtime when the trees are in blossom, in summer when all is green, and in fall when the leaves are colorful…My father’s hands were swollen when he made this memento, all the seasons of home, for me. He was dying. He could barely grasp a pencil….. a second gift, a wooden hand created by tracing his own on a piece of wood. Like the cube, it was carefully polished. At the base where the wrist is, there are three carved letters: GAH, his initials and mine. I was grateful for these gifts. I had wanted some goodbye and he had left it, without saying anything. My silent old man.”
On his hometown and the people in it:
“Mammy’s people were farm people. Sometimes it is simply to imagine them, those who lived here once, all the good people, crossing the river, coming in from the country for church on Sunday mornings with clean, coerced hair and their best clothes. Think of wrinkled faces, mischievous eyes, hands in immaculate white gloves, wistfulness, innocence, worry over money, or crops, or sickness. Think of the men, itchy to get back to work; mayors and merchants in their hard-pressed white shirts, tight collars, and stiff coats; lacy girls in ribbons; stoic boys, uncomfortable in their finery, confined in rarely worn shiny shoes; big-boned farm women with ample bosoms in dimestore brooches; old, milky-eyed codgers, freshly shaved with a few hairs still peeking out of their ears and noses; mothers with careful glances, pulling their kids away from puddles, holding their hands, smoothing, their hair, and wiping their cheeks. I picture them all moving across the land, the days, through time, crossing Main Street, clutching their crosses and Bibles, trying to stay pretty, trying to look pious, walking together, traveling in their snorting, hard-to-start cars, or heading toward town in their buggies or on horseback to bow their heads and pray together to Jesus, who, in the stories I read, stood for love, charity, and kindness offered every day to others, even those unlike ourselves. Kindness may be the most difficult of virtues, but when I have encountered it, it has meant everything to me.”
But not blind:
“Every week or so, a gay kid somewhere jumps off a bridge or slashes his wrists. I am told that a boy near here hanged himself because his father could not accept who he was. On television, I listen to the things they say, the right-wingers, and fundamentalists, and all the people who consolidate their power by hurting other people. I want to cover up the ears of kids and say ‘Do not take it in.’ I took it in. I really did. I heard everything that people in the world around me said about who I was. It hurt me, but I thought I had no right to say anything because I was wrong. I didn’t know what silence would cost, how it would change my life. It takes a long time to outrun the things that the world drills into you.”
Betty, with her list of forgotten words, her list of hymns, her struggles with her hair and her natty old sandals. Betty, emotionally distant, but George’s champion–“Mind your own business”, “You are my business.”
Do yourself a favor. Read this beautiful book.