Senior year, Edwardian-style

Betsy and Joe (Betsy-Tacy, #8) by Maud Hart Lovelace

While it seems safe to say at this point that I’ll probably never join the small but committed group of stans for the Betsy-Tacy series, these books and characters have slowly but surely grown on me. One doesn’t have to be a diehard fan or the target audience to genuinely like a series. I just regard it in a different way.

The book opens in summer 1909, as Betsy’s family are on their annual holiday by Murmuring Lake (real-life Madison Lake in Minnesota). Betsy is very excited to get a letter from her longtime crush Joe Willard, who entrusts her with the secret that he’s covering a big land-swindle trial for The Courier News in Wells County, North Dakota.

Joe also invites her to regularly correspond with him, an offer she happily accepts.

Amazon.com: Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe (9780061794728): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

Betsy’s older sister Julia is away in Europe, and constantly sending letters home about her exciting adventures in places like London, Paris, Naples, the Azores, and Amsterdam. After summer ends, she’s due to spend a year in Berlin studying opera.

Though Julia is warmly accepted by a host family, her trunk doesn’t immediately arrive. Everyone keeps carrying on about how awful it is that she hasn’t any proper, new clothes to wear to important events or to impress people, as though there are zero department stores in Berlin or it’s impossible for anyone to lend her clothes.

Betsy and Joe (A Betsy-Tacy High School Story) by Maud Hart Lovelace (1948) Hardcover: Amazon.com: Books

Betsy, now a senior, once again has only a paltry four classes—physics, German (she dropped Latin), civics, and Shakespeare. I truly can’t wrap my brain around a high school even 100+ years ago only offering 4-5 classes to each grade! And to only require two years of math and science (with no trig, chemistry, or biology), and not have gym or electives like art, music, and creative writing!

I wish these books spent more time on Betsy’s academic life instead of being so heavily focused on her social life. E.g., how and why did she choose the classes she did? What kind of homework, papers, and tests did she have? If her parents think it’s so great she’s studying America’s then-unofficial second language her senior year, since so many people in town speak it, why didn’t they have that conversation when she started high school and steer her towards German instead of Latin from the jump? Did Betsy consider studying French? Does the school even offer French, or any of the other courses basic to 99.999% of all high schools?

I also wish there were more details about just what exactly Betsy is writing all these years. We’re told she’s writing novels and submitting stories to magazines, but we know little to nothing about any of these ventures. Only the fourth book explored her writing in any depth, and then her social life eclipsed her writing.

Senior year seems to start off promisingly, with Joe finally visiting the house and going on some dates with Betsy, but a love triangle soon emerges with Tony Markham, whom Betsy had an unrequited crush on in ninth grade. Now that Tony finally has feelings for her, she no longer likes him in that way. Betsy sees him more as a brother.

Because tradition of that era dictated a girl had to accept the first guy to ask her to a dance or other event, Betsy is roped into going out with Tony many times. She doesn’t have the heart to say she’s not interested, and Joe’s work commitments preclude him from asking first on most occasions. Joe also doesn’t let her explain the situation, assumes the worst, and immediately finds another girl to escort.

There’s a pointless subplot about a hot new boy in school, Maddox, joining the football team and becoming an object of ridicule on account of barely participating to protect his handsome face. After he’s publicly mocked in front of the whole school during a pep rally, he lets himself get battered during the last game of the season. I’m so glad modern football helmets protect the face!

Football team in the 1910s

It was jaw-dropping to see Betsy and Tib several times lamenting how Tacy will probably be an old maid because she still shows no interest in dating and boys at the ripe old age of seventeen. Tell me again how Betsy is such an unsung feminist icon of girls’ fiction?

And right on command, shortly after Tacy’s 18th birthday, we meet her future husband, who works with Betsy’s dad and is 27 years old. Mr. Kerr steals a photo of Tacy from Betsy’s photo album and announces he’s going to marry Tacy, no matter how long it takes. He also later sends several bouquets.

GROOMER!

Why would a well-adjusted adult man be interested in a high school girl who has absolutely no experience with men? Betsy’s dad even laughingly says Tacy had better watch out, since Mr. Kerr has a way of always getting what he wants!

Creepy, Wrong, Immature and Pathetic: Older Men Chasing After Much Younger Women – Christian Pundit

Anyway, Betsy grows more mature as the year wears on, and realises she has to be honest with Tony. If she makes it clear once and for all romance is off the table, she just might finally win her dream man.

Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style, Part III

Amazon.com: Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy) (9780064405478): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: Books

After struggling to find a connection to this series since the first book, I’m finally starting to come around. But it didn’t happen immediately in this the seventh volume, and there were still some things which bugged me. Still, I’m looking forward to the eighth book to see if my connection continues to improve. I plan to reread the entire series when I’m done with it. Some things are better the second time around.

Looking back, part of my difficulty may have been caused by how I heard almost nothing but good things about these books going in, instead of having a blank slate. When your expectations are raised so high, you often feel disappointment at whatever not living up to the hype more keenly. Perhaps I have been too hard on these books, though I remain annoyed at how unrealistically charmed these people’s lives are, without any serious problems.

Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy, #7) by Maud Hart Lovelace

It’s now September 1908, and Betsy once again vows to do everything differently this year so she’ll do better in school, get the guy she likes, and improve herself overall. Much of the first chapter is given over to an infodumpy recap of the last two books, interspersed with Betsy’s resolutions.

Betsy gets a happy surprise near the end of her annual summer holiday at Murmuring Lake (real-life Madison Lake in Minnesota) when her old friend Tib (real name Thelma) arrives. When she last saw Tib over Christmas 1907, Tib revealed the secret that her family were seriously considering returning to Deep Valley (real-life Mankato), and that they’d never sold their old house.

Just as Betsy advised her, Tib has begun acting like a giggly ditz to attract male attention.

Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy Books (Prebound)): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780780790957: Amazon.com: Books

Tib is instantly popular with “The Crowd,” Betsy’s huge group of BFFs, despite not having known most of them prior. I so dislike the trope of the new kid being immediately, warmly accepted! That wasn’t my experience at all my junior year of high school. Most people are too busy getting it on with the BFFs they’ve known since kindergarten to care about newcomers.

Now that Betsy is an upperclasswoman, she’s taking five instead of four classes. (I have such a hard time picturing a real high school even 100+ years ago with such few class periods!) This year, she has Foundations of English Literature, modern U.S. history, botany, home ec (which her school pretentiously calls Domestic Science), and Cicero (i.e., Latin).

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Betsy’s older sister Julia rushes home from university unexpectedly, awash in homesickness, and tells the family about sororities. Three different houses are wooing her, though first-year students aren’t allowed to join until the spring. Julia has her heart set on Epsilon Iota, and won’t hear of rushing any other sorority.

Mr. Ray sensibly thinks Greek life sounds really exclusionary and to the detriment of a university’s real purpose, but Mrs. Ray begins living vicariously through Julia and starts researching the school’s sororities. Later on, she visits campus and goes to all these parties, teas, and lunches alongside Julia. (Can we say helicopter parent?)

Betsy is so taken with the idea of sororities, she starts her own with seven friends, Okto Delta. Eventually, eight boys start the Omega Delta frat. And here Betsy’s troubles begin.

A few of her friends rightly feel excluded, causing strains in their relationships. And just as in the previous two years, Betsy’s attention to social life takes precedence over schoolwork. In particular, she, Tacy, and Tib put off their botany herbariums till almost the last moment.

Slowly, it begins dawning on Betsy that perhaps she’s being snobby and shallow, and that it might be time to put away childish things. I was glad to finally see pushback and real consequences. Hopefully this emotional growth won’t be undone in the last high school book!

Long ago and worlds apart in small-town Minnesota, Part III

Seeing as I came to this series well into adulthood, without a rosy-colored childhood nostalgia view, it took quite awhile for me to start warming up to it. While I found some episodes cute, sweet, and charming, these books are just too idyllic and happy-clappy for my tastes. I quit watching Full House cold turkey at thirteen because I finally got sick of their unrealistic, syrupy, corny stories, insipid characters, and problems easily solved by quick heart-to-heart pep talks.

I’m not asking for a nonstop parade of doom and gloom, esp. considering these are children’s books, but at least give me some edge, real conflict, actual consequences or pushback when these kids misbehave, do something potentially dangerous, or annoy someone! Even a deliberately episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs hung on some kind of arc.

The “Kids back in the day were so much more innocent and wholesome!” angle also fails for me. My great-grandparents were born around the same time as Mrs. Lovelace, and they only wished they could’ve had such an idyllic childhood as hers. Poor and working-class kids have never had that luxury.

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It’s 1904, and Betsy and her BFFs Tacy and Tib are twelve, old enough to start having more mature, sophisticated adventures like going downtown alone and attending the theatre. Betsy is also spending more time writing stories, often while sitting in the “crotch” of a tree by her house. (Until I read this book, I’d never heard the word “crotch” used in that way!)

Tacy comes to Betsy in tears, saying her dad burnt a book lent to her by Betsy’s family’s maid Rena, Lady Audley’s Secret. He denounced it as trash because it’s not “real” literature like Shakespeare and Dickens. (This élitist attitude towards popular fiction will come back later in the story, even worse.)

To get the dime to buy another copy of the book, the three girls force their presence on Betsy’s older sister Julia and her beau Jerry. In the past, Jerry has given them a dime to get them out of their hair, and they know he’ll do it again.

Jerry does one even better this time and gives them each a nickel. Now they’ll have five cents left over to buy candy. (If only the cost of living were still that low!)

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (Betsy-Tacy, 4): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Lenski, Lois: 9780064400985: Amazon.com: Books

Downtown, they’re amazed to see a car, the very first in their town. Its presence causes a great hullabaloo, and Tib eagerly volunteers to take a ride in it with owners Mr. and Mrs. Poppy. The Poppys are from Minneapolis, so glamourous they live in a hotel, and both weigh over 300 pounds.

After the brief car ride, the girls go to the Opera House and are delighted to see an advertisement for an upcoming performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was a hugely popular, famous play in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Everyone was familiar with the story, and going to see it live was a major deal.

Towards this end, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib launch a committed campaign to convince their new friend Winona to give them her other three “comps” (complementary tickets she begged off her newspaper editor dad).

After pulling out all the stops and finally resigning themselves to not being able to go, the girls are oh-so-predictably invited last-minute. They have an absolutely fabulous time at the show, and since they arrive so early, they’re able to tour the beautiful theatre. Best of all, they get to sit in an upper front box instead of the cheap seats.

BETSY AND TACY GO DOWNTOWN by Maud Hart Lovelace, Illustrated by Lisl Weil /1st: Amazon.com: Books

Some time afterwards, Betsy’s mother gives her a “writing desk,” a trunk that used to belong to Betsy’s maternal uncle Keith, who left home to become an actor and has been estranged from the family ever since. (This subplot, like almost everything in the series, is based on Mrs. Lovelace’s real life, but it feels so sappy and tacked-on!)

While Mrs. Ray is making a nice little writing station for Betsy, and insisting over and over she’ll never snoop and read Betsy’s stories without permission, somehow Betsy gets a bug in her ear and throws down her notebooks. Mrs. Ray sees their “scandalous” titles, like The Tall Dark Stranger, Hardly More Than a Child, and Lady Gwendolyn’s Sin, and tells Betsy she needs to read “great books” if she wants to be a good writer. God forbid anyone write commercial paperback fiction!

Towards that end, Betsy’s parents let her go to the new library every two weeks so she can read “proper” literature like Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, and Dickens. I was so pissed when Betsy threw her stories in the stove to be BURNT! She’s TWELVE! Find me one 12-year-old who’s pretentiously trying to copy “tHe ClAsSiCs” instead of, you know, writing like a normal CHILD!

Shaming a child, even in sweetened language, about the kinds of things she enjoys writing, isn’t a good look.

Betsy runs into Mrs. Poppy on her way home from the library, and is invited into the Poppys’ luxurious hotel suite. She’s delighted when Mrs. Poppy treats her to a tea party, promises to try to find Uncle Keith, and invites her and her friends to a Christmas party.

Betsy and her friends have a bunch of winter and Christmas fun over the next month, and Betsy sends a story to a magazine in Philly, hoping for publication and $100. Then everyone’s invited to star in an upcoming production of Rip Van Winkle, and you can probably guess what that’s leading towards.

Long ago and worlds apart in small-town Minnesota, Part II

As I explained in Part I, which reviewed the first two book in the Betsy-Tacy series, I just amn’t as into these books as apparently many other people are. Maybe I’d feel differently had I been introduced to them in grade school instead of as an adult, but then again, several books I adored as a youngster haven’t survived an adult rereading.

As someone who grew up poor and working-class and therefore knows real life is rarely like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie, I also have low tolerance for books, TV shows, and films where everything and everyone are unrealistically idyllic and happy-clappy. No one’s life is picture-perfect all the time, with minor bumps in the road quickly smoothed out.

And don’t ask me to believe your comfortably bourgeois characters are struggling financially when they can afford a freaking telephone in the 1900s, a live-in “hired girl” to cook and do housework, a house with both a front AND back parlor, and building an additional bedroom onto the house! Not to mention having a dining room instead of eating in the kitchen.

Image result for betsy and tacy go over the big hill

Betsy and her BFFs Tacy and Tib are super-excited about their upcoming tenth birthdays, since they’ll have double-digit ages and will be practically grown. Betsy, the last to turn ten, gets a surprise birthday party at night, lasting till 9:00, which confirms her view that ten is such a huge maturity milestone and sophisticated age.

Betsy, Tacy, and Tib (whose name is frustratingly cut out of the title, despite doing everything the other two do) promptly develop their first celebrity crush, on 15-year-old Prince Alfonso of Spain. On his upcoming 16th birthday, he’ll be crowned King Alfonso XIII.

Image result for betsy and tacy go over the big hill

Being just ten years old, the girls daydream about marrying him and becoming Queen. They’re so obsessed with him, they cut out pictures from the newspaper and pin them to their undershirts. They can think or talk of little else, until they discover he can only marry an equally-ranked princess of the royal blood.

Regardless, they write him a letter proclaiming their love and wishes for marriage. This letter becomes lost during a picnic on top of the hill. Not only that, the picnic basket itself goes missing.

Image result for betsy and tacy go over the big hill book cover

While trying to chase down their lost letter and basket, they find a goat and his human, a girl just their age who lives in Little Syria on the bottom of the hill. (The residents were actually Lebanese, but Lebanon was part of Syria in this era.) The goat carried off their picnic basket, whose contents they gather up.

The girls invite the stranger to their picnic, teach her a few words, and learn her name is Naifi. Being typical kids, they decide to keep their new friend a secret.

That spring, their school holds its annual School Entertainment, full of singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and reciting. On their way home, they discover a pack of boys bullying Naifi. The increasingly violent fracas only comes to an end when Betsy and Tacy’s older sisters come upon the scene.

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James Tinkcom, developer of the real-life Tinkcomville (Little Syria) in Mankato, Minnesota

It all goes downhill for me in the second half. Betsy, Tacy, and Tib decide to do a June Queen ceremony, and they completely flip out when they learn Betsy’s sister Julia and Tacy’s sister Katie are making plans for their own Queen of Summer ceremony.

The younger girls are convinced Julia and Katie stole their idea, and make up a babyish song about them being mean copycats. When Julia and Katie say they planned to invite them to be flower girls, the younger girls act like overgrown 3-year-olds having a tantrum. They even physically attack Julia and Katie and destroy the crêpe paper they spent their own money on.

In the middle of this childish temper tantrum, Betsy’s dad drives up. Given the era, I’m shocked these girls weren’t given a good paddling for their outrageous behavior! They’re not even made to pay Julia and Katie back for the ruined crêpe paper. Instead they’re all prevailed upon to canvas the neighborhood for votes.

During their quest to get as many votes as possible, Betsy and her friends go to Little Syria and meet Naifi again. And here the plot thickens, leading to an unrealistically, sickeningly syrupy conclusion.

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.

Image result for betsy tacy and tib

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.