Monday, August 10, 2009
Betsy: The High School Years
Heaven to Betsy (1945), Betsy in Spite of Herself (1946), Betsy Was a Junior (1947), Betsy and Joe (1948) by Maud Hart Lovelace. From the library. What with all the editions, etc., available, I'm linking to Amazon's most recent ones but read much earlier ones.
The Plot: Betsy Ray's high school years, from 1906 to graduation in 1910.
The Good: I continue to love everything about this series. Betsy is hysterical; I love how she affects a stoop, er, droop, because she thinks it makes her look alluring. I love how Betsy isn't a star student in every subject; realistically, she shines in some areas, not so much in others.
I love how Betsy is obsessed with boys; and to any modern parent shaking their head, thinking that is a modern concern, reread Heaven to Betsy. Betsy may think of most of the boys she knows as just friends, but she still wants them to walk her to and from parties and to come calling at her house. She yearns for a boyfriend -- cries over it, even.
Did I mention the fanfiction? I mean, Betsy's fanfiction? In the article Carlie and I wrote for SLJ, we didn't get into RPF, aka Real Person Fanfiction. In Heaven to Betsy, Betsy takes an assignment to write an essay about the Puget Sound and turns it into a travel adventure story about herself, her friends and sister, and Enrico Caruso.
I'm also impressed with how Betsy views her writing as more than a hobby. She isn't perfect; she drifts away from it, neglects it, gets over confident -- but ultimately never hesitates in viewing it as important. Her family also sees it as important; in fact, her family supports all their daughters that way. Julia wants to be an opera singer? They do what they can to make that dream a reality.
In other things, Betsy is a teenager, a typical teenager, trying on different personas, not always honest about her own likes (books) or dislikes (skating), talking on the phone, worrying about her hair and clothes. As a matter of fact, while some of the references are delightfully turn of the century (shirtwaists! pompadours!), remove them, add a cell phone, and you find a girl and her friends who would fit into today's world.
Betsy gets in trouble for passing a note in class, and the teacher first humiliates her in class by reading it out loud and then sends her to the Principal's office. Her mother's reaction? The school was wrong. Yep; all those "oh noes" news articles about how parents today don't support the school and their darling is never, ever wrong and the good old days were better... Mrs. Ray proves you cannot make any assumptions about the "good old days" versus today.
I almost forgot -- the Crowd! Betsy's mix of friends, boys, girls, some her class, some older, some younger. They're fun; I would love to hang out with them. And they're not perfect, but Lovelace doesn't preach about their missteps (the sorority), but allows them (and the reader) to come to their own conclusions. Plus, whatever the downside of the sorority flirtation, it also has its fun moments. Very true to life.
I love that this is one story -- the story of Betsy's path from childhood to woman, figuring out her role in family, her relationships with boys, her own dreams -- told in four volumes.
I love historical fiction; but I also love reading fiction written during the time period it is about, because I find a book written in the 1910s is more authentic and historical than the one written in 2009 about the 1910s. What is interesting about books like Betsy-Tacy is it's about the early 1900s written in the 1940s. When Betsy visits Tib (a trip Tacy's family cannot afford), she encounters on the train a "porter, a colored man in a white jacket". Later on, he brushes off her hat and travel coat before she departs the train. Today, in addition to not using the word "colored," there would have been more made of race. Also, the mysterious brushing off the clothes leaves the modern reader scratching their head. What the heck? A book written today would have over-explained that. And there is the scene where Tony sings in blackface; a modern book would explain it, if it was included at all. Lovelace just has it happen, revealing just how standard a practice this was; and how unobjectionable it remained in the time period it was being written.
Much is told about the German immigrant experience and their contributions when Betsy visits Tib in Milwaukee. It's a beautiful and loving look at a pre-World War I America, when the immigrant experience was such that the immigrant's primary language remained the language of their home county. There is the modern (today) lesson here, for all those who say "learn to speak English, our grandparents did!" No, not always; Tib's family, second generation, spoke German. I cannot help but believe that Lovelace was also writing from the perspective of a person who had lived through World War I and II and seen how "the enemy" was treated and often demonized, and included the information about Milwaukee's German population not only because it was factual but also to inform readers that German Americans were Americans and "German" didn't mean "enemy."
The Little House books have had much written about how the books were written, including a recent New Yorker article. As I further explore the world of Maud Hart Lovelace, I'm looking forward to learning the same things about her and her books (tho, honestly? While I love the LH books, I think I'd rather hang out with Maud than Laura and Rose).
I like to wonder about what goes into the writing process of turning childhood into fiction. Compare Betsy Tacy, for example, to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Betty Smith includes details that would not have been included in a book written for children. (BTW, one of my (many) pet peeves is people who think A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a children's book.) I'm especially intrigued by the inclusion of Joe Willard in these books. Just a cursory look at the Internet shows that Willard was based on Lovelace's husband and his boyhood; yet Lovelace didn't meet her husband in High School. So I can't wait to read her biography and learn more of what she included, what she did not, what she changed, what she did not. If you have a particular biography or journal article to recommend, let me know.
Like Little House, Betsy Tacy doesn't flat out point to negatives but rather the positives show the negatives. Nothing in the first four books mentioned bathrooms, toilets, outhouses, baths in tubs in the kitchen. When Betsy moves to a new, grander house with an indoor bathroom, we find out for the first time that in the old house there wasn't a bathroom.
Betsy's family is "not rich" but it is clearly upper middle class. Like today's kids, who think of themselves as "not rich" but always have the money for a movie and ice cream and new clothes. And there are references to the bigger world with different lives. Betsy's father grew up poor. Joe Willard, Betsy's age, is living on his own, working, paying his own way and going to school full time. A friend's father dies, putting his schooling in jeopardy, making Betsy realize just how fortunate she is. As Betsy gets older and more aware of the wider world, we see a family that suffers huge losses. The music teacher's sister dies, leaving behind four children, three of whom die of an unspecified sickness (probably TB). Part of Betsy's growth is her growing awareness of people and lives beyond her own; so we don't learn about this family until Betsy is older.
Vera Neville illustrates these books; loved them; disappointed I couldn't find more about her online.
Next reads: the remaining two Betsy books and a biography of Lovelace. I also want to get my hands on Carney's House Party and Emily of Deep Valley, neither of which my library owns, so I'll be using their ILL for the first time.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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