MONTREAL, Quebec — Rose Betit’s debut novel “Sparrows” is a work some 20 years in the making. But the harrowing story of a family growing up poor in Albany, Georgia, took a lifetime of living for Betit to tell the tale.
“Sparrows” is categorized by people who feel it is their duty to make such characterizations as fiction. But read the heart-breaking horror of a destitute family going to bed hungry most nights and listen to Betit talk about her very real childhood that mirrors that of the Letourneau family, and it’s easy to see that the Letourneaus are a fictionalized version of the Cody family that made its way to Albany from Maine in 1968 in search of some sense of stability.
“I call the book semi-autobiographical, but it’s about 75% straight-up autobiography,” Betit said in a phone conversation. “About 25% of the book is fabricated, but most of the stories happened to me or to people I know. I didn’t really take a great deal of artistic license.
“A lot of the characters are composites of people I know, and I did want to respect my siblings’ privacy. There were things I really wasn’t sure I wanted to put out there, plus I thought there would be a great deal of vulnerability if everything was true. And I’m a writer; I wanted the freedom to create, to make some stuff up.”
“Sparrows” is the story of the Letourneau family — Mom Jolene, brothers Stevie and Joseph, and middle child Isabelle, the narrator of the story — but for the most part, it’s the story of the very real Cody family as they fought the daily struggle for survival. Betit tells of that struggle with alarming detail, the imagery too haunting to have been the figment of some writer’s imagination.
“Some of it was painful to write,” the author says as she talks about how the two families’ — one fiction, one all too real — stories overlap. “Those details of being perpetually hungry, that was traumatic. That’s not something you ever forget.
“I did want to show people, up-close and personal, how hunger gnaws at a person. That part in the book where Isabelle fills her stomach with water so it would feel like she was full ... that was true. That happened to me. We all had so many days that we went without a proper meal.”
The tragedy of “Sparrows” is universal and will resonate with any reader who allows him- or herself to relate to these characters. But the book will strike many a familiar nerve for residents in and around Albany, who will recognize local landmarks and characters whose plight mirrors that of the Letourneaus.
When Betit — who “didn’t know what the heck to do in Albany?” — returned to her native Maine, a single mom with her own two kids in tow, she earned a degree in French and taught the language for students from Pre-K to high school. But, she said, “I always wanted to write.”
She started working on “Sparrows” around 2000, and was, she said, on a roll when 9-11 happened.
“I don’t know how to explain how that affected me,” she said. “I think I was in shock; I didn’t write for a long time. I thought at the time — and this may sound a little hippy-dippy, but it’s how I felt — that maybe my creative muse had left me.”
It was eight years later before Betit, after a few unsuccessful fits and starts, found her creativity and hunger to write again.
“I’d been reading a lot of poetry, and I went to school to get a creative writing degree,” she said. “The kids were young when I started back writing, but I was excited to be at it again.”
Betit landed a job writing about real Estate for the Montreal Gazette, but she lost that job when the pandemic took hold. She decided there was “no better time” to polish up and put the finishing touches on the book that had consumed her life off and on for the better part of two decades.
As she worked to get the final edit ready — which happened in June of 2021 — “Sparrows” turned into something of a family project.
“My son (Joshua Betit) became like my manager/editor ... he read, edited and made suggestions,” Betit said. “It was his idea to add what was maybe the lone surreal element to the book when Isabelle — on Page 427 — gets on a transit bus and in something of a glitch in the time-space continuum, crossed paths with the real me and my real family. It turned out to be a really cool concept.
“My daughter (Hannah Betit) came up with what would be the design for the front and back covers.”
Betit did not seek a publisher for “Sparrows,” choosing instead to self-publish.
“I didn’t bother to consider the traditional way of publishing,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to make the cuts they’d want for the book to be more palatable. I decided to bypass the gatekeepers and just put it out and see what happens.”
Betit admits that Isabelle is indeed based upon herself, and that Stevie is based on her real-life big brother Phil Cody (an ad sales representative for The Albany Herald). Isabelle’s best friend Evelyn is a composite of Betit’s sister Celeste and one of her childhood friends, and baby brother Joseph from “Sparrows” is a composite of her real-life brothers Christopher and Timothy, all of whom show up in that time-space glitch in the book.
About mom “Jolene,” Betit writes in “Sparrows,” “At the Hasty House, Mama hardly brings home enough tips for anything. When the food stamps run out, Mama takes us to the Pac-A-Sac and we wait while she talks to the man named Allen that’s the cashier man and she asks him if we can have some credit. She’ll pay him back in whatever way she can, she says to him and winks. He says maybe they can work something out and tells us we can have $5.00 in store credit.”
“My mom passed away about 18 years or so ago, and when I think about here now, there is no resentment for how we grew up,” Betit said. “I feel a lot of compassion for her.”
With “Sparrows” officially under her belt, and getting favorable reviews, Betit has embarked on several other projects. She’s working on “Sidewalk Stories,” a collection of short stories; expects to release the children’s book “Maisie and Moe the Extra Extraordinary Bassets of Court Street;” is thinking over turning different chapters of “Sparrows” into standalone novellas, and is even considering a prequel to her novel called “Bird’s Eye.”
As for response to her first novel, Betit admits she’s “proud” of her accomplishment.
“It took me a while to believe it was good enough,” she said. “But people close to me said they liked it, I started to get some excellent reviews and I even won a couple of awards. I’m not boastful at all, but I’ve finally started to believe that it’s actually good. I’m a tough critic, but I can admit that I like it.”
Ebook and paperback copies of “Sparrows” are available at amazon.com.