Long ago and worlds apart in small-town Minnesota

It’s quite surprising I don’t recall hearing about the Betsy-Tacy series till a few years ago, since I read so many other old books and series when I was in elementary school. For whatever reason, I just never saw or was told about these books until I was well past the age of the intended primary audience.

This 10-book series is strongly based on author Maud Hart Lovelace’s own life, so much so it’s all but a memoir with different names and a few tweaked details. Apparently it has quite a cult following, with many people effusively crediting it with their decision to become writers, citing it as one of their favorites growing up, and calling the characters friends.

There’s even a Betsy-Tacy Society, with regular events like trivia contests, Victorian Christmas parties, concerts, wine-tasting fundraisers, and writing workshops. They also have a gift shop and give tours of the real-life places in Mankato, Minnesota which feature in the series.

But does it hold up for someone only coming it to as an adult, without rose-colored childhood nostalgia?

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A month before Elizabeth (Betsy) Ray’s fifth birthday, a new family moves into the house across the street. Both houses are at the end of Hill Street, which aptly has a big hill behind it. Betsy is very excited to learn the new neighbors have a little girl her age, since none of the other kids on Hill Street fit that description.

The new girl, who’s extremely shy, runs away when Betsy tries to meet her on a snowy March day. She shouts out her nickname, Tacy, and for some reason Betsy thinks she’s calling out a mocking name. (Even if someone has a very unusual name, why would that be your first thought?!)

Next month is Betsy’s fifth birthday party, and Tacy is among the guests. Betsy learns her name is Anna Anastacia, and that Tacy is her nickname. (Mrs. Lovelace found the name Tacy in a Colonial newspaper while researching another book. It was a 16th–18th century Puritan name derived from Latin tace, “be silent.” As for Anastacia, that spelling seems really out of place on an Irish–American Catholic girl born in 1892.)

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The two become instant BFFs, and they begin having all sorts of old-timey fun and games like playing pretend (though these magical stories are written as though they’re actually happening!), eating lunch in a piano box, going up the Hill Street Hill and sitting on a bench, hanging out on the hitching block, buying candy for a penny, starting kindergarten, playing with paper dolls, dyeing Easter eggs, selling colored sand, dressing up like their mothers and going calling as them. At the end of the book, they meet their new BFF Thelma (Tib) Muller.

A couple of problems crop up, but they’re all rapidly, smoothly resolved—Tacy running away from school in tears on the first day during recess, Tacy’s baby sister Bee dying, Betsy being upset when her parents have a new baby.

And speaking of the lattermost, Betsy’s dad was so sure he’d finally get his precious male heir and Junior, he didn’t bother thinking of a girl’s name! He asks Betsy and her older sister Julia, the day the baby is born, to give her a name!

Other than that, nothing really happens. Everything and everyone are all happy-clappy in this idyllic small town full of comfortably bourgeois people. Betsy and Tacy never quarrel. No neighbors ever confront them about how they’re screaming at the top of their lungs in the middle of the street.  Their only consequences for mild misbehavior seem to be mild scoldings and their parents quickly laughing off their antics.

Plus, it’s written in that dated, distant, spoilerific God-mode, so I never felt in anyone’s head or like there were compelling, emotional stakes.

Sorry not sorry, but I need a real reason to care about characters and storylines beyond them being thinly-fictionalized memoirs of an old-timey childhood. Having grown up poor and working-class, I know real life ain’t like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie for most people, and can’t relate to such idyllic tales. My great-grandparents, who were born around the same time, only wished they could’ve had such happy, innocence-laced childhoods!

Also, even a deliberately episodic, character-based story needs hung on some kind of narrative arc.

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The second book is pretty much exactly the same, a bunch of random episodes in an unrealistically idyllic small town, only with a third girl added. And did people in the 1890s really think trouble automatically begins when three girls become BFFs?! Plenty of trios have been friends for decades!

The first chapter pissed me off, when the girls make themselves look like (physically) dirty beggars and pretend to Mrs. Ekstrom at the top of the hill that they’re starving. Betsy and Tacy’s older sisters come in, and they cowardly flee, whining, “They’re eating our cookies!” Mrs.  Ekstrom didn’t make those cookies for YOU!

There are more playing pretend episodes written as if these magical things are really happening. The girls also attend a street fair with a flying lady, build a miniature house in Tib’s basement, bake a repulsive concoction with literally everything in the pantry and predictably get sick, and start a secret club.

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The girls cut their hair after Tacy recovers from diphtheria, with the intent of making memorial jewelry, and their parents completely overreact initially (because God forbid a girl might have SHORT hair!), but quickly laugh it off and even out the rough edges. It reminds me of the chapter in the dreadful Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family where Mama tells Charlotte and Gertie that Papa would’ve given them the worst beating of their lives if she thought they gave their cousin Ruthie a bad haircut on purpose. WTAF!

The girls decide to hang bags around their necks and fill them with stones every time they’re “bad,” and soon are delighting in “naughtiness” so they can add more stones on purpose. Their “misbehavior” is truly tame, like putting mud in their pockets, calling their sisters stuck-up, making faces at people, and picking flowers in their own gardens. You rebels, you!

At the end of the book, they meet Tib’s beautiful Aunt Dolly from Milwaukee.

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Honestly, there’s no narrative drive to hook me. These girls’ lives are too happy-clappy and picture-perfect, and I don’t see them growing and maturing beyond getting a bit older. There are no serious consequences for anything they do wrong, as there are for girls like Anne Shirley, Cady Woodlawn, and Laura Ingalls. Nothing truly bad ever happens to them. They get to do whatever they want without any real pushback.

Slice of life stories still need some dramatic tension and a sense that these episodes are connected in some way. I don’t like my books to be as syrupy and annoyingly perfect as Full House in written form.

How an eccentric recluse wasted her money and life

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman

Imagine being the child of a self-made multi-millionaire, living in giant luxury apartments and mansions. You’re so wealthy you don’t have to work a day in your life, and you’re blessed to live two weeks shy of 105 years. You also don’t have a spouse or children, so you’re always on your own schedule.

With such vast wealth, unlimited amounts of free time, and a primary home in a world-class city full of amazing things to see and do, what do you suppose you might spend your incredibly long life doing?

If you’re Huguette Clark, you choose to be a recluse, waste money on maintaining homes you’ve not set foot in for decades, pursue childish hobbies, and live in a hospital for the last twenty years of your life, despite being in wonderful health. Oh, and you’re unhealthily joined at the hip with your mother.

Huguette was the youngest of nine children born to robber-baron William Andrews (W.A.) Clark, from two marriages, five of whom lived to adulthood. Wife #2 was 39 years younger than W.A., young enough to be his granddaughter. Needless to say, his four surviving kids from Wife #1 were very unhappy about this new family and cradle-robbed bride.

W.A. was no multi-millionaire-turned-philanthropist like Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller. Apart from donating some money to churches and universities, and using his bombastic home for charity events, his will only left $600,000 to charities. Most of those recipients were charity homes and schools named for people in his own family, plus a company mining town in a city named for him.

He was also involved in a big political scandal when he ran for the Montana Senate in 1898. Though found guilty of bribing legislators for their votes and subsequently removed, he later won a single Senate term from 1901–07.

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Huguette, born in 1906, lacked for nothing growing up, and never had to live a day of her life like a plebe in the real world. She threw around huge chunks of change like it were nothing, and her bank refused to charge overdraft fees the many times she wrote these giant checks with insufficient funds. She also was very ignorant about gift taxes.

When told she hadn’t enough money to cover yet another ridiculously large check or expensive purchase for her favorite nurse, or to buy more dolls for herself, Huguette sold artwork and violins.

The nurse and her family came across like moochers. They all but outright demanded Huguette give them more money, cars, and houses, instead of questioning her up, down, and sideways about her intentions. I’m glad they received nothing after the will was finally settled!

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Huguette was very briefly married, but many people believe this marriage was never consummated, since she decided to end things and rush back home to Mommy Dearest on the ship taking her to her honeymoon. All evidence suggests Huguette was celibate her entire life. She also had long-running relationships with people she only spoke to through a door, on the phone, or through letters.

This was clearly not someone living a well-balanced, healthy, normal adult life. Yet the writers insist their precious Huguette was just a quirky eccentric who lived life on her own terms and was super-generous with money. They’re outraged by suggestions she had a mental breakdown or was asexual, autistic, developmentally delayed.

It seems immoral and selfish to waste millions of dollars maintaining homes one never sets foot in, not to mention pigging up a hospital room for 20 years. Huguette even wasted money furnishing her unoccupied apartment with replicas of the furniture in Mommy Dearest’s old apartment, which she only saw in photos.

And did I mention her accountant was a sex offender?

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This book should’ve been at least 150 pages shorter. It gets rather repetitive and boring when Huguette moves into the hospital, and the authors are so clearly besotted with their subject, unable to give an unbiased account. The nonlinear format was also annoying.

A well-adjusted adult has a life beyond dolls, dollhouses, cartoons, fairytales, and reclusively holing oneself up and refusing to engage with the outside world. It’s quite sad that in all those years in the hospital, no one ever did a proper psych evaluation.

Huguette deserved treatment for whatever was wrong with her, instead of being surrounded by enablers and moochers.

Hist-fic doesn’t require real characters!

It seems many younger hist-fic writers are under the presumption they need to write about real people. While there’s a long, rich tradition of historicals about or prominently featuring real people, as well as the entire subgenre of alternative history, there’s never been a requirement to draw your characters from real life.

Ask yourself why you want to write about this person, and why it needs to be fiction. If you’re so passionately interested in her/him, why not write a biography or a non-fiction book about a certain aspect or period of his/her life? As it is, many of these novels read like bios already.

One of my major problems with these books is that the authors often go off in a completely ahistorical direction. E.g., people who lived 100+ years ago are given very modern values, 100% fictional characters are given major roles in the MC’s life, storylines and events are invented without even the thinnest shred of proof.

Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln immediately comes to mind as such a story. There is so much detailed documentation on the Lincolns, and none of it supports the fantastical depictions of Robert as a cold-hearted villain from birth, Mary having an affair, Mary being sex-crazed, or Mary seducing her husband to force him to marry her!

Julie Orringer, the author of the dreadful snoozefest The Invisible Bridge, recently published her long-promised novel about journalist Varian Fry, one of only five Americans to date to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Given the subject matter, you’d expect a gripping epic about a hero helping many artists, writers, musicians, and other intellectuals to escape Vichy France, right?


It’s all about his insipid gay romance with a made-up character! If you’re going to make a real historical figure gay, you’d better be prepared to prove it with irrefutable evidence instead of speculation. And to check more boxes, Ms. Orringer also made this fake lover biracial.

Just like her massively overrated first novel, this one too is wildly overwritten, with overlong, pointless descriptions of everything. Ms. Orringer also continues her pretentious habit of regularly having entire lines in untranslated French, German, Italian, and Latin, as well as liberally using million-dollar thesaurus words.

Other times a book is little more than a direct retelling of a memoir or autobiographical novel, only with another person in the main role. Nothing new is brought to the story. Caroline: Little House Revisited is a prime example of this. The author also plays into the inaccurate stereotype of Victorian women as dour, depressing, and prudish.

We also have a trend of books like Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti, with a first-person narrator who’s not the MC. This isn’t necessarily a badly-done gimmick, but there needs to be a compelling reason the story isn’t being told by the MC, and the narrator always needs to be in the same place as the MC or know all these details about the MC. Do young writers these days truly not understand the concept of third-person?

I’ve zero problems with sex scenes involving fictional characters, but sex scenes with real people cross a major line for me. Unless this is a person like Casanova, who made no secret of his sexual exploits, it seems a huge invasion of privacy. Do you really think they’d want total strangers 100+ years later to speculate about their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

Even worse are scenes of people relieving themselves! Why did this ever become a thing in fiction?

I get the distinct feeling many of these writers aren’t motivated by respect, and have made little to no effort to understand these people in their full historical context. They just grabbed a familiar name and decided to spice his/her life up for modern readers.

Here’s a novel idea: If you like this historical figure so much but can’t bear to stick to just the facts, create your own character with similar circumstances! Then you can do whatever you want with her/him instead of being bound to following documented history.

2020 in review (Reading, Part III)

Amazon.com: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: An Autobiographical Account of an Escaped Slave and Abolitionist (Clydesdale Classics) eBook: Jacobs, Harriet Ann: Kindle Store

This was a long, slow read, and took forever for Ms. Jacobs to finally stay on the subject of her own life instead of unrelated side stories. The 19th century prose and euphemistic language also made it difficult to read. E.g., until I did some outside research, I thought her scuzzy master Dr. Flint (real name Dr. James Norcom) was raping her. He was guilty of some kind of sexual harassment, but not out and out rape.

I was also surprised at how frequently slaves in her town were able to buy their own freedom, or be sold to people who immediately freed them. The latter happened to her grandma, in whose house Harriet later hid for seven years before going North.

And speaking of those seven years, Harriet kept sending fake letters to Dr. Norcom with addresses from various Northern cities to antagonise him. When she’s finally in the North, guess what, he almost catches her several times, and later finds her in Boston!

Earlier, Harriet antagonised him by having two children out of wedlock with a much-older white man, believing he’d be so angry he’d sell her and she’d be free of his constant sexual harassment. WHAT! I don’t get that train of thought of all. And of course, he didn’t sell her, despite his anger and Harriet’s own shame at being an unwed mother.

The intended audience was white, Northern, Christian women of means, whom she hoped to appeal to and thus enlist to the abolitionist cause. It was originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, though it was really hard for me to imagine a 19th century woman named Linda.

Still, kudos to Harriet on sending her kids North and giving them a good education, escaping slavery, and making a better life for herself in freedom.

Amazon.com: The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel (P.S.) (9780062110848): Wecker, Helene: Books

Talk about a dragging dud! This book started out so captivatingly, with lovely prose, but it quickly ground to a meandering standstill. Many things happened, but they never accomplished anything. The two protagonists don’t even meet till page 172! And it follows that annoying trend of alternating POV chapters.

It seems like someone chose NYC as a lazy default setting and wanted to show off her research of the city in 1899–1900. Why do so many writers immediately and only go to NYC for immigrant stories? How about Boston, Pittsburgh, Philly, St. Louis, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Dallas, even outside the U.S.?

Each respective Jewish and Syrian character is a clone of the other. It’s not even subtle. And there was such poor character development.

Speaking of characters, the forward momentum ground to a halt every time a new character was introduced, and there followed pages of detailed backstory. Why did I and many other writers spend so much time learning how NOT to write like that if apparently it’s still perfectly acceptable?

Even after the protagonists are named Chava and Ahmad, they’re still referred to as the Golem and the Jinni in the narrative.

We’re supposed to believe a well-heeled upper-class young lady like Sophia would leave her bedroom door unlocked in the hopes a strange man she just met might come to her mansion and deflower her?! I’m so tired of historical characters treating premarital sex like no big deal!

Of course it happened a lot, but people were much more discreet, and they stayed within their own social class to do it. Believe it or not, class stratification and consciousness in the U.S. used to be a much bigger deal, the way it still is in the U.K.

As someone who often writes at deliberate saga length myself, I’ve developed a keen sense of when length is justified by the story vs. when it’s an overwritten hot mess. The latter is true here.

Even a deliberately slower-paced, character-driven, episodic story needs hung on some kind of arc. Characters can’t just leisurely meander about doing and saying nothing of importance.

We’re supposed to believe the Jinni has never heard of angels?! They’re very much a part of Muslim theology!

Did the author, a woman herself, really have to be so awful to every single female character who enjoyed sex? Death, beating, enslavement, miscarriage, lifelong illness, abandonment. It’s one thing to present it as historically realistic, but entirely another when it’s accompanied by the attitude of “Oh well, those little harlots got what was coming to them! It serves them right for giving up their sacred maidenhood before marriage!”

Even when the Golem attempts passionate sex with her husband, she stops when she sees how horrified he is at a woman experiencing sexual pleasure!

It also perpetuates the repeatedly-debunked urban legend about names being changed on Ellis Island.

Still reading this book as of 31 December 2020, but I should finish very soon. It’s so fun and accessible, with lots of stories I’d not heard before, or wasn’t very familiar with. Some of these stories don’t directly involve The Beatles themselves, but are about the experiences of fans or people associated with them in some way (e.g., watching Ed Sullivan, writing fan letters, attending the same party).

Some obsessed losers on review sites have whined about how there’s barely anything new here. It must be nice to have read every single printed word about The Beatles and watched every interview for 50+ years. Most people don’t have time or interest for that, and not everyone is a first-generation fan.

2020 in review (Reading, Part II)

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I absolutely loved this book! Though Echo (the English title) is classified as MG, people of all ages can enjoy it. It tells the story of three preteens who successively come into possession of the magical harmonica introduced in the prologue, and beautifully ties all of the stories and characters back together in the end.

The story starts in the 1870s, when Otto gets lost in a forest during a game of hide-and-seek, and meets three sisters from the fairytale he was just reading. This book has blank pages which can only be filled in with a HEA when Otto’s magical harmonica saves a life.

The harmonica eventually makes its way around aspiring conductor Friedrich in 1933 Germany, orphaned brothers Mike and Frankie in 1937 Philly, and promising musician Ivy in 1941–42 Southern California. Each story ends on a cliffhanger, and we don’t find out what happened next until the Epilogue.

The entire story was brilliant and deeply moving.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I loved the first book and liked the sequel. Once again, I’m much more impressed by recent MG hist-fic than YA hist-fic. MG emphasizes the historical setting, whereas much YA is about teen characters who just happen to live in the past.

Ten-year-old Ada was born with clubfoot, which is a huge source of anger to her abusive Mam. Despite being forced to stay inside their one-room flat and not given crutches, though, Ada manages to teach herself to walk. This enables her to leave London with her little brother Jamie when children are evacuated to the countryside in anticipation of bombing raids.

They wind up with an older single woman named Susan, who lives in a cottage left by her deceased best friend Becky (whom most adult readers will understand was her lesbian partner). Susan is none too pleased to have two kids dumped on her, but eventually she starts to genuinely care for Ada and Jamie.

Because of her past abuse, Ada is loath to let down her guard and let Susan love her or do anything nice for her, but she can’t help but find herself growing more attached. She also loves riding Butter, the pony Becky left to Susan.

The sequel felt a bit unfocused, poorly-paced, and not developed as well as the first book, more like a collection of story threads and a plot in search of itself. I would’ve preferred one long book encompassing all these events, with the boring bits cut out.

Amazon.com: Weedflower (9781416975663): Kadohata, Cynthia: Books

Talk about boring! I felt so emotionally detached from everyone, and there was no real plot trajectory. The summary claims it’s about an unlikely friendship between a young Japanese–American girl in an internment camp and a Mohave Indian boy whose reservation is on the same land, but they don’t meet till well into the book, and they don’t have many interactions after that.

Poor character development and flat writing all-around!

A Place to Belong: Kadohata, Cynthia, Kuo, Julia: 9781481446648: Amazon.com: Books

I wasn’t much more impressed by this other book of Ms. Kadohata’s. While I love character-based, slower-paced stories with a more episodic structure, they still need hung on some kind of arc. This book felt more like a collection of story threads that weren’t developed to their full potential.

When your book is episodic instead of built around one major driving plot, those episodes still need to go somewhere and be fully developed. Each chapter should read like a short story, a miniature novel unto itself. Don’t just drop something partway through, or only come back to it later as an afterthought.

E.g., a big deal is made of Hanako getting her trademark long braid cut off to fit in with the girls at school, but we never see her classmates’ reaction to it. She just gets her hair cut, and then we move on to an entirely different episode some time later.

I also disliked! How many times! Sentences would end! In exclamation points! For no reason! Over and over again! It was like reading a Beatrice Sparks or Five Little Peppers book!

I did like the rarely-told story of a family returning to Japan after WWII, thanks to giving up their U.S. citizenship under duress and answering “no” to certain questions on a loyalty test out of fear, confusion, and anger at their implications and wording. Some, like Hanako’s father, soon came to regret this decision, and got in touch with real-life U.S. lawyer Wayne Collins.

Sadly, his thousands of clients were unable to have their citizenship restored as a mass class action. Each case was decided individually, which took as long as 23 years for some people.

I also liked the setting of postwar occupied Japan, esp. close to Hiroshima. Many people struggled to make ends meet and get enough to eat. Jiichan (Grandpa) and Baachan (Grandma) were also lovely, sweet characters.

9780545915960: A Night Divided - AbeBooks - Nielsen, Jennifer A.: 0545915961

I wasn’t that impressed by this one. There wasn’t much character development, not even brief descriptions of physical appearance. For a story about escaping East Berlin, it sure lacked any real suspense, even when Gerta and her brother Fritz spend weeks tunneling in the cellar of a boarded-up building in the literal shadow of the Berlin Wall!

Gerta alternately seemed much younger and older than twelve, and she felt like a modern American criticising East Germany instead of an actual born and bred East German who didn’t know anything but that kind of life. In fact, no one seemed like an authentic East German of 1961. I can’t believe the author matter-of-factly admitted her only real research came from a museum in California!

It finally starts getting exciting in the last quarter, but that portion is full of convenient deus ex machina developments and plot twists I saw coming a mile away.