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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

WRONG!

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.