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.

Why I loathe open concepts

I well and truly cannot understand why HGTV pushes open concept houses so heavily. Unless they’re laid out in the right way, living in one is an absolute nightmare.

I’ve been in many houses and apartments with semi-open concepts I had no problem with, and seen others I like on video tours. What makes them different and better than the magnified studio apartment style so in vogue now is the floor plan.

A home with an L or U shape has rooms located off of halls, or an enfilade-style arrangement where all the common, public rooms lead into one another through archways, pocket doors, or partial walls.

Copyright The Fixers; Source Wikis Take Manhattan 2009

Likewise with townhouses in many large cities, which are narrow and deep by necessity. While the upper floors have rooms located off the hallway, the parlor floor tends to have common rooms leading into one another. Sometimes there are doors; other times there are archways designating each room.

But what I can’t tolerate is a square-shaped open concept house!

Why do I hate this style? Let me count the ways.

1. Walls and doors exist for a reason. They designate each room for a separate purpose, and ensure privacy, peace, and quiet.

2. Not as much space to hang pictures, put up bookshelves, and store things.

3. The lack of walls also equals poor temperature control. In the summer, it’s much hotter. In winter, it’s unbearably cold.

4. Did I mention no privacy? These houses seem designed for joined at the hip families who are constantly together, never doing anything in separate rooms.

5. Someone at the door can automatically see into the entire house!

6. Absolutely atrocious acoustics! You want to watch TV, read a book, or do anything in the living room? Not if people are in another “room” all of ten feet away or right up the stairs! Everything is magnified like a tsunami of unbearable noise—speech, running water, the other TV, kitchen appliances, aluminum foil, drawers being opened and closed, rattling utensils, the ice machine.

7. It feels like being in a gymnasium.

8. There’s a reason studio and efficiency apartments are only meant for one person or couples just starting out. Why increase the square footage of that floor plan for an entire house?

9. Read any old book or historical novel, or watch any film from before about 1950 or historical drama. You’ll see rooms located off halls or a main common room (usually the parlor), not one giant open space trying to be multiple rooms at once. It was particularly important for the kitchen to be located well away from the main rooms and to have a door.

10. Speaking of the kitchen, do you really want guests to see drying or dirty dishes stacked up 10-20 feet away, to smell food all over the house, or to watch you preparing food?

11. You’re constantly all up in everyone’s business by default of having no place to retreat to.

12. Less flexibility for converting rooms to other uses. 

13. They just look cheap and emotionally sterile!

14. Many people are so enamoured of open concepts they gleefully tear down walls and rip off doors in old houses.

15. Since everyone can see everything from any vantage point, it necessitates more frequent cleaning to avoid messes.

16. It just doesn’t feel like a real house!

17. They’re a terrible fit for those of us who love vintage interior decoration and furniture.

Walls and doors will be mandatory in my next home. I’ll specify I only want to see pre-1950 houses, and if a contemporary house is all I can afford, I’ll save up to install walls and doors as soon as possible. Open concepts are truly an architectural abomination, no matter how heavily HGTV pushes them.

Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!