What exactly are these magical stories? I asked myself. Somehow I missed all this in my youth, but it was clear to me that I must track them down. So I did.
Set in the fictional town of Deep Valley, MN, the Betsy-Tacy books were written in the 1940s and 50s and follow the life of Betsy Ray from childhood (when she becomes best friends with the girl across the street, Tacy Kelly) and then on to high school and beyond until her marriage. The books start off with Betsy at age 5, and the reading level is for younger readers. As Betsy gets older, the reading level progresses, as well.
Here's the list of all of the books in the series; the ones I read are starred (Books 7-13 on my list!) (What? I can count kids' books if I want. They weren't picture books or anything... ).
(the grade school books)
* Betsy-Tacy and Tib
* Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill
Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown
(the high school/young adult Betsy books)
* Heaven to Betsy
* Betsy in Spite of Herself
* Betsy Was a Junior
* Betsy and Joe
Betsy and The Great World
Then there are a few "side" books about characters other than Betsy, like Winona's Pony Cart and Carney's House Party, but I didn't read those, mainly because they were harder to track down and I wasn't that desperate for them. (Though any book invoking teenagers having a house party in 1911 does sound intriguing...)
Anyway. I am here to say that these books are so lovely! Betsy is so modern for her time: While she does like clothes and being popular with boys, she always intends to be a writer, and her parents and friends support her. Her sister Julia could have her pick of boys, but what she really wants is to be an opera singer. No one ever tells the girls they shouldn't follow these independent, modern dreams. It's just fabulous.
And parts of the books are so funny. Anna, the Rays' housekeeper, somehow thinks the word "puny" means "handsome" and/or "pretty". I love when Anna talks about how puny everyone is.
"Betsy, this is Anna Swenson who has come to work for us."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Betsy murmured. Under the feathered hat she saw a wide good-natured face.
"Why, lovey!" said Anna Swenson. "How puny you look! Almost as puny as you are, lovey," she added, to Mrs. Ray.
"We're a very puny family," Mrs. Ray answered in a choked voice.
Anna nodded. "So were the McCloskeys. They're the folks I used to work for, lovey. My, how they liked my raised biscuits and my meat balls and my chocolate layer cake! And every last one of them was puny. Charley used to say to me, 'Anna, aren't those McCloskeys the puniest folks?' and I'd say, 'Ja, Charley! They're certainly puny!' They were tony, too."
"And who is Charley?" asked Mrs. Ray while Betsy slipped into a chair and stared with fascinated eyes.
"My beau," Anna answered, smiling broadly. "A bartender down at the Corner Cafe."
"Is he puny, too?"
"Na," answered Anna regretfully, shaking her head. "He's not puny. He's a nice fellow, Charley is, and a good spender. But I'd never call him puny."
I think my favorite books so far (I own and intend to read the final two books) would be Betsy in Spite of Herself and Betsy Was a Junior. In Betsy In Spite of Herself there is a bit where Betsy decides she is going to become a much more glamorous and mysterious person. This plan involves tacking an 'e' to the end of her name (making it Betsye) and wearing lots of green. In Betsy Was a Junior, the girls start a sorority.
"Let's us - the three of us - start a sorority."
Tacy and Tib were stunned for a moment by the magnificence of such a concept.
I thought this whole storyline was fun. First of all, Betsy's meeting minutes (she was Secretary of the new sorority) are hysterical:
"Sister Morrison moved that the meetings always be held in the afternoon. She was hooted down and didn't mind at all; it had been her mother's idea, anyway. Sister K. Kelly suggested a cross-country tramp for the following Thursday. This was agreed upon, one of her chocolate cakes being part of the bargain.I can't wait for my next opportunity to hoot someone down!
"Sister Root proposed opening the sorority to boys. This also was hooted down. Sister T. Kelly, who doesn't like boys, grew as red as her own locks with rage. Sister Root would have been abashed if she had been anyone but Sister Root. ... After this business meeting, conducted with skill and dispatch by our honored president, the Sistren brought out sewing bags, and their lily-white fingers flashed as they crocheted, tatted, embroidered, or just plain sewed. Sister Ray worked on the world's most famous jabot, destined for Sister Sibley's swan-like neck. They also toasted marshmallows and discussed important matters: to wit, boys."
So they have a grand time with their club, planning parties and whatnot, but then come to realize how exclusivity isn't necessarily such a good thing in high school, and that sisterhood is not something you need Greek letters to experience. It just felt so ... modern for young women at the turn of the century to be thinking this way.
Nearly all of the characters in the books are based on Maud Hart Lovelace's actual family and friends, with Betsy being based on the author herself. The widespread popularity of the books is such that there is even a Betsy-Tacy Society, and you can take a tour of the girls' actual homes in Mankato, MN. The books had been out of print for some time until last year when HarperCollins reprinted them, with new introductions by the likes of Meg Cabot and Laura Lippman.
I found the whole series to be comforting, delightful, and wholesome. The small stories in each chapter are memorable and the larger stories are grounding. I really enjoyed getting to know these books over the past couple of weeks. Highly recommended to my friends with girl children!
Maud Hart Lovelace Society
Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award