Friday, November 27, 2009

Hooray, Hooray for Betsy Ray

There are times when only comfort reading will do, and comfort reading of the most extensive sort--a much loved childhood series. One such time was this summer when I was sick, and I re-read the first four Betsy-Tacy books, ostensibly to see how they would work for my nieces, now both reading up a storm. (Just fine--not that there was any question of that.)

Another such time was this past week, when I learned that not only do I have Lyme disease but that I tested positive several months ago, and the doctor's office accidentally misplaced the test results. Not only that, but my best case scenario for treatment is a month of oral antibiotics (thereby wiping out all the good stomach bacteria I've been building up for years, which I'm convinced has kept me relatively healthy when I'm in India). (The other treatment scenario involves IV antibiotics for several weeks, but I'm devoutly hoping it won't come to that.) (By the way, I feel fine.)

So, comfort reading, if only to avoid thinking about all the things I'd like to do to the doctor's office, not to mention the stupid deer tick that bit me god knows when and didn't have the courtesy to make me get a rash, so I would know what had happened.

I first read the ten Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace when I was a child and then again as a teenager. I read them during stressful times in grad school, and I read them in my thirties, at least the last six, the books that take Betsy Ray and her best friend Tacy Kelly through high school and then abroad and into adulthood and marriage. I've always known that mine was not a solitary obsession, but it turns out to be more widespread than I'd imagined. The new reissue of the last six books from Harper Perennial Modern Classics, in three volumes, has garnered mentions in both New York Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. It also spurred the first ever Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge, not to mention the Betsy-Tacy Book Blog Tour.

The Betsy books are fictionalized versions of their author's life--Maud Hart Lovelace grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, at the turn of the century in a warm, loving family, wanting to be a writer. Lovelace told stories of her childhood to her only daughter, Merian Kirchner, and the Betsy-Tacy series was born. The first four books, which take Betsy and Tacy, and their friend Tib, from the ages of five through twelve, are delightful. Tacy is shy, Tib is tiny and Betsy makes up stories and hatches adventures for them all.

The last six books are different. Not that they're not equally delightful, but they're no longer children's books. Each high school book takes Betsy and her crowd through a year of high school. Betsy and the Great World skips ahead several years to 22-year-old Betsy on her own in Europe in the months before the outbreak of World War I. And Betsy's Wedding brings her home and sees her married to her sometime high school sweetheart and writing rival, Joe Willard. (I only just now learned that the Betsy-Joe high school relationship is entirely fictional, as Maud Hart Lovelace didn't meet her husband, journalist Delos Lovelace, until she was in her twenties.)

What keeps these books relevant and engaging is Betsy herself. She is incredibly alive in these pages--charming and flawed and constantly aiming to improve herself, or, at some points, change herself entirely. (She never succeeds.) What is lovely about Betsy is that she screws up, over and over again. She gets overly involved with her friends, she blows off her school work, she makes plans and doesn't keep them. She wants to be a writer but doesn't always make it her priority. She is, in short, entirely believable as a teenager and as a young woman.

It's probably been ten years since I last read the series, and it's interesting to me what details remained with me. For some reason, I remembered Betsy's sister Julia getting blackballed by her sorority but not Betsy and her friends forming their own sorority, Okto Delta, with less than wonderful results. In Betsy and the Great World, I remembered her visit to Oberammergau, where the Passion Play is performed every ten years, but I had no recollection of her near love affair with a young Italian man in Venice. What struck me on this re-read of Betsy and the Great World is how perfectly Lovelace portrays how it is to be on your own in another country for the first time. Betsy may have traveled with infinitely more luggage than I did, but some of the things Betsy thinks in her first few days in Munich are exactly the things that I thought during my early days in Delhi twenty years ago. When Betsy finally makes a friend, and everything changes, I knew exactly how she felt. It also amused me to see that I absolutely identified with Betsy's yearning to take a bath. In her case, the obstacle was the location of the bathroom with the tub (in the section of her hotel where army officers were quartered), whereas I was struggling with the paucity of bathtubs in India in general. But while my friend Becca and I were so desperate for a bath that we were on the brink of asking a woman we'd just met if we could use the bathtub in her hotel room (we lost our nerve, alas), Betsy persists, gets her bath and charms the officers all at the same time. Go Betsy!

What's odd is that I don't actually own any of the Betsy books. I always read library copies as a child, and when I got older and thought about buying them, I discovered that the older editions are rare and expensive, and most of the reprints are not very well done. (Really, there were some terrible choices for cover illustrations along the way. Several times I thought, "But Betsy and Tacy didn't look like that!") That may change, though. I'm delighted that there are handsome new editions out, with the original illustrations and new introductions and material about Maud Hart Lovelace and her life. It's heartening to know that Betsy and her family and friends will continue to charm and entertain readers today, a century after Maud Hart Lovelace graduated from high school in Mankato and moved first to Minneapolis and then out into the great world. And maybe if the books are on my shelf, I won't wait ten years to re-read them. I won't need the excuse of illness or anything else to curl up with Betsy, Tacy and Tib, with Carney and Cab and Winona, with handsome Joe Willard and Julia Ray's endless stream of beaus, and watch Betsy roll the Magic Waver curlers in her hair before bed and settle down at her Uncle Keith's trunk to write the stories that she hopes will some day make her famous.


Book Club Girl said...

I'm so glad you found the reissues! And I couldn't agree more, the Betsy books have been my comfort reads for YEARS!

If you want to read about this summer's Betsy Tacy convention, you can check out the coverage (plus other BT excitement) on my blog here:

also, do you know about Maud L? The List serv of obssessed fans? It's an extremely fun group of passionate readers.

Get better soon!

Laurie said...

It's great to read about the connections you made with Betsy while traveling--some feelings are universal, across time and place. I never tire of re-reading my Betsy-Tacy books, especially the high school years and on.

Caroline Leavitt said...

Sue, for some reason Twitter isn't letting me send ANYTHING. For details, pls. email me at Fab people at my local knit store are looking for a ghostwriter for a book.

Audrey Kletscher Helbling said...

I too love the Betsy-Tacy book series. Although I grew up in Minnesota, I didn't discover Maud Hart Lovelace's books until I had children. I have sweet, sweet memories of reading the first books in the series to my girls when they were four and six. My second daughter even goes by the nickname of Tib.

Are you aware of the Mankato-based Betsy-Tacy Society? See

Also, check out my Sept. 29 Minnesota Prairie Roots blog post about the reissued titles at

And, if you ever get to Minnesota, visit Mankato and the Betsy-Tacy sites there.

datelesslibrarian said...

When I was about 15, I got rid of my Betsy-Tacy books, thinking that I really didn't need them anymore. Years later, I regretted it and I began hunting for them at yard sales. My mother ended up buying me the whole set for my 22nd birthday and I sat in my college apartment rereading every single one.

They are wonderful books!