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!

Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style, Part II

Amazon.com: Betsy in Spite of Herself (Betsy-Tacy) (9780064401111): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: Books

Making my way through the Betsy-Tacy series has been quite frustrating so far. I really wanted to like these books more, since there are so many loyal fans, and a lot of fellow writers speak glowingly about the huge influence this series has had on their lives. And Mrs. Lovelace, while operating under the style of a bygone era (e.g., way too many adverbs, a lot of telling instead of showing), was clearly a good writer. Many of her passages are quite beautiful.

I also love slower-paced, character-driven stories with more of an episodic structure and series where coming of age IS the storyline, and of course I love almost anything historical. So why has it been so hard for me to click with most of these books?

Betsy in Spite of Herself: a Betsy-Tracy High School Story: Lovelace, Maud Hart: Amazon.com: Books

Because not only do these characters have unrealistically charmed lives, their few problems are so minor and fluffy. For all my issues with the Five Little Peppers series, at least they have real problems that aren’t easily, quickly resolved!

I had zero interest in parties, dating, or shallow social life in high school. The antics of the popular crowd seemed so boring and stupid. I also don’t come from a privileged bourgeois background like Betsy and her huge group of BFFs.

Amazon.com: Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (9780061794698): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

It’s September 1907, and Betsy is starting her sophomore year. She tells her journal she wants to reinvent herself and become a totally different, more exciting person. Didn’t we just go down that road in the previous book?

Betsy sets her sights on junior Phil Brandish, who has a red car. That automatically makes him more desirable and exciting than any of the other boys she knows. Betsy never lacks for male attention, but thinks all these guys only flock to her house for the food.

Despite only having FOUR classes (Latin, rhetoric [i.e., English], geometry, and modern history), Betsy once again neglects her studies. Parties, football games, and hanging out with “The Crowd” are just so much more fun than boring schoolwork!

Betsy in Spite of Herself: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780613100120: Amazon.com: Books

Betsy stays by her old friend Tib (real name Thelma) in Milwaukee during the last two weeks of the year, and has a grand time in this then-very German city. She loves the lavish Christmas celebrations which last an entire week, attending the theatre, eating wonderful new foods, learning some German, and getting to know Tib’s extended family.

On New Year’s Eve, Betsy and Tib stay up all night talking, and Betsy starts hatching her plan to reinvent herself in earnest. She makes a checklist of things to do differently on the train home.

One of those changes is adopting the ugly kreatyv spylyng Betsye, which I mentally pronounced Bets-YEE. Because, you know, letters mean something and aren’t just tossed into names willy-nilly to look cool.

Betsy Tacy Boxed Set 6 PB Maud Hart Lovelace Lois Lenski Heaven to Go Downtown 64401278 | eBay | Betsy, Maud, Hardcover

Betsy gets Phil to ask her to the Leap Year Dance by putting out the word that she had a dream about him (which never happened). To stay on the controlling Phil’s good side, Betsy passes up party invites, refuses to join the girls’ debate team or sing the silly Cat Duet she and her best friend Tacy have been singing for years, and almost declines to be one of the sophomore participants in the yearly essay contest. All so she can date a rich boy with a car.

As in the previous book, Betsy realises near the very end that she shouldn’t have pretended to be someone she’s not, all for the sake of popularity and male attention. This would feel less deus ex machina if she’d gradually built towards this instead of only coming to see the error of her ways when everything blows up in her face in a very public way.

I was also super creeped out by how Betsy’s sister Julia, a high school senior, dates two grown-ass men, one of them Betsy’s English teacher!

52 Betsy-Tacy Cover Art ideas | betsy, books, maud

I just can’t relate to someone who’s so boring and shallow, and lives such a charmed, idyllic life. Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d taken part in the cliché high school experience or grown up bourgeois.

Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy, #5) by Maud Hart Lovelace

Because I mostly enjoyed Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the fourth book in this vintage coming-of-age series strongly based on the author’s own overly idyllic life, I thought I’d like the high school books even more. After all, as characters gradually get older, their adventures automatically become increasingly more interesting and mature.

Right?

Wrong!

Amazon.com: Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (9780061794698): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

First of all, this barely qualifies as a proper Betsy-Tacy book because Tacy is barely in it. She’s relegated to more of a secondary character most of the times she appears, since she’s not interested in the shallow, insipid goings-on of “The Crowd” (what a stupid, unoriginal name for a big group of friends). This book would’ve been so much more compelling if Tacy’s lack of interest in boys, social life, and partying had been developed as a foil to Betsy’s new obsessions.

There was such poor character development of “The Crowd,” I totally forgot Herbert and Larry are brothers until it was pointed out again near the end! All these new friends ran together. While I usually write with large ensemble casts myself, you can’t just throw them all at the reader in one fell swoop! You gradually introduce them a few at a time, even if they’re all present early on.

Vera Neville’s illustrations don’t help, since they make everyone look almost identical.

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy #5) by Maud Hart Lovelace | The Dog Gone Bookshop

This book feels like a reversion to the earliest books in the series in that it consists of a series of random episodes instead of one cohesive plot or story trajectory. Am I supposed to give a damn about the endless parties, get-togethers, and flirtations of these popular, upper-middle-class ninth graders? Or relate to Betsy for being instantly popular and sought after by multiple boys from Day One of high school?

Betsy is so obsessed with currying favor with “The Crowd,” she feels she can never turn down an invitation. At one point, she pretends her mother cautioned her against ice-skating due to cold weather, and when that ruse fails, she fakes a sprained ankle rather than tell her supposed friends she just doesn’t like skating.

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Despite attending what must be one of the easiest high schools ever, with only FOUR classes (Latin, composition, algebra, and ancient history), Betsy still manages to do poorly in everything but English for much of the year. Her final grades in Latin and algebra are Cs, and she somehow manages to greatly pull up her history grade near the very last minute to finish with a low A.

I was embarrassed for Betsy when she used a nonfiction essay about Puget Sound to write a freaking short story about herself, her friends, and her sister Julia taking a visit there. She read that “essay” before the entire school, and got a huge round of applause! If I were her English teacher, I’d have failed her for not following directions. I remember several assignments I got Cs on or was told to redo because I misunderstood the objective or made my own character up instead of using a real person.

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy, #5)

The boys were so freaking entitled and obnoxious, I failed to see why any of the girls liked them so much. E.g., they break into a house during an all-girl Halloween party, steal the ice-cream, and hold it hostage till the girls feel browbeaten into inviting them inside. Later, they force kisses on unsuspecting, non-consenting girls as they walk under a doorway with mistletoe, and even laugh about how Tacy’s coming next and will be really mad. It is NEVER okay to kiss someone without consent!

Betsy is nominated as one of the two ninth grade contestants for the annual essay contest, and has six weeks to research this year’s topic of the Philippines. But because she just can’t turn down a party invitation, she only visits the library a handful of times and predictably comes to the contest poorly-prepared.

Betsy Tacy Boxed Set 6 PB Maud Hart Lovelace Lois Lenski Heaven to Go Downtown 64401278 | eBay | Betsy, Maud, Hardcover

There’s a subplot about Betsy and her sister Julia wanting to join the Episcopal Church and freaking out about how their Baptist father will react. I wish that storyline had been featured in greater detail, since it’s a lot more compelling than Betsy’s stupid parties and boy-chasing.

Minor nitpick, but I was pulled out of the story every time the Ouija board’s planchette was called a “table.” That’s never been the word used for that object! (And if you’re wondering, scientific studies have shown the Ouija board works by the ideomotor effect, subconsciously moving the planchette to answers you want.)

Bottom line: Betsy is really shallow and boring in this book, and it feels kind of deus ex machina and unrealistic when she finally realises near the end that she shouldn’t have abandoned her writing and pretended to be someone she’s not for the sake of popularity and male attention.

And enough already with the constant parade of unnecessary adverbs!

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.

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.

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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.