Thursday, August 06, 2009
Betsy Tacy Books, 1 - 4
Betsy-Tacy (1940), Betsy-Tacy and Tib (1941), Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill (1942) and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (1943) by Maud Hart Lovelace. Library copies.
The Plot: Betsy Ray wants a friend; Tacy Kelly moves in across the street. At first it seems like they won't become friends. But, it turns out, Tacy is simply shy and a friendship forms during Betsy's fifth birthday that will last a lifetime and inspire the well loved Betsy-Tacy books. At the end of the first book, Tib Muller moves to town, and the three girls achieve a perfect triangle of friendship. These four books follow the friendship of the three girls up to age twelve.
The Good: I had never read these stories before! I know!
Betsy, Tacy and Tib age and grow. Lovelace perfectly captures the mindset of the children at each age, and doesn't allow a grown ups view to pollute it. In the first book, Tacy's baby sister dies. Betsy comforts her friend, awkwardly yet touchingly, as a five year old would. Later, Betsy gets a new baby sister, Margaret. Betsy sobs that she is no longer the baby; it is Betsy who is more troubled, and heartbroken, over the loss of her status as the baby of the family than either girl is over the death of Tacy's baby sister. (Admittedly, this is all through Betsy's POV. But point remains. Betsy's grief over her loss of status is greater than her grief over the death of a baby). Tacy explains, matter of factly, how that is something that just happens; one moment you're the baby, then you aren't, life goes on.
And what is great is that yes, to a child, no longer being "the baby" is horrible. It's an entire shift in a child's world and in their identity. In a way -- to that child it is much more horrible than the death of a friend's actual baby sister, who you didn't really know anyway. Is that cold? Selfish? Self involved? Yes; but that is childhood. And Lovelace doesn't let her own adult views (and losses; her first child died as an infant) cloud the baby's death with sentimentality.
Some of the girls adventures are from a different time; but just as many are timeless, involving picnics, crushes on celebrities (instead of a Jonas brother it's the young King of Spain), going to plays, making a playhouse out of piano box. Today, though, the playhouse would be less sturdy as the delivery box would no doubt be cardboard!
While book four makes a big deal of Betsy's going to the library by herself, even before then the children have a great deal of freedom. It's a world of going out on the street to play, without grownups and play-dates. It's a world not so much of the past, as a world of the past of a certain class. Much as I loved these books, part of me is already wondering if Lovelace's childhood was as perfect as she presents in these books (the characters and events are based on Lovelace and her childhood friends). Yet, there are hints of other things, less than perfect, that are not as "in your face" as they would be in today's books. Betsy's family has less money than Tib's; boys bully an immigrant child and no adult punishes them or interferes; Tacy's baby sister dies; Betsy has an uncle who ran off because of an unpleasant stepfather. I'm not trying to find the bad; I'm just saying, much as I adore these books and cannot wait to keep reading, let's not glamorize the past or view old-fashioned books such as this as "clean."
Do I adore these books? Yes. Would I give them to kids today? Yes.
What about things that are dated? These books were written in the 1940s, about growing up at the turn of the century. There are things one has to realize were modern at the time; for example, the three little girls are each a different religion (Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian). That was a big deal at the time. In one book, the girls are friendly with an immigrant child from Syria (modern day Lebanon). While the girl's culture and language is clearly seen as "other" and "different", she and her family are also clearly depicted as "American." At the same time, one book mentions a play of Uncle Tom's Cabin and one of the girls casually says, "I could black my face [to play Topsy]." The reality of the time is that white actors would play those roles.
My library copy was a four-in-one volume (The Betsy-Tacy Treasury, 1995) illustrated by Lois Lenski. God, I loved Lois Lenski's books and illustrations as a kid.
The Betsy-Tacy books are, like All of a Kind Family and Little House, part memoir and part fiction. Like those others, the characters grow and age. I wonder, will we be seeing any similar series soon? Is there another like these that I've missed?
On to read the rest of the books!
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy