For a very different look at the first days of WWI, look no further than Betsy Ray. In Betsy and the Great World, she is almost, but not quite, in the middle of all the action, traveling through Europe in 1914. When books are set in certain years (1861, 1914, 1939), you just something historic and bittersweet will happen.
She has spent time in Germany and France and has gotten to know some locals. Like Rilla, Betsy hears of the murder of the Archduke, but did not worry. Instead, “she had amused herself as the train sped through the night by plotting a romantic novel full of titled corpses, spies, and intrigue.” She is spending some time in France, doing many of the tourist things. She visits Napolean’s grave and notices a wreath with the banner: “Let no French soldier rest, while there is a German in Alsace.” She thinks, “The French and German really hated each other.” Foreshadowing much? There is more foreshadowing later, when she sees the first batch of English soldiers. She notices: “They were very young and slim, with fresh pink cheeks. The German soldiers had been so big and capable!”
When war does break out, Betsy is in England. She is staying in a boarding house, with a cast of characters. As the war news develops, Lovelace in a few brief sentences explains the alliances that were such a contributer to the War. Betsy thinks “this was too complicated to follow.”
But Betsy has a special concern–if England declares war, how will she get home? She is grateful to be in England, as Americans were fleeing the Continent. Plans among her crowd are changing rapidly, and very soon, her father sends her a telegram, urging her to come home.
When England declares war, they stay up all night, waiting for the clock to strike midnight. There is a cheer and then the crowd breaks into “Rule Britannia.” As the news settles in, “presently, as before, her ears caught a change. The singing became words, two words, intoned ove and over. Newsboys were running up and down crying them. “War declared! War declared!” Finally it was fused into one word. “War! War! War!” Betsy did the only thing she could do at such a moment. She got down on her knees.”
The last chapter of the book concerns her stuggles to book passage (along with the best romantic cliffhanger in kidlit, but that’s another blog).
For Rilla, the war doesn’t affect her right away, but Betsy is thrown into it immediately. I love this portrait of Europe before it’s torn apart, and the turmoil when war begins. When history books talk about the beginnings of war, it’s usually about armies and navies mobilizing. But what do you do if you’re traveling and suddenly the country you’re visiting is at war? How does your mind get around the fact that someone you’re friends with is now your enemy? These are the kind of personal experiences that so often have to be left out of the history books (especially military history, which usually misses the social history aspect completely), but they make the war so much more real for those of us who weren’t there.
In these opening shots of the war, Rilla and Betsy are very alike. Their primary concern is how these events will affect them personally. In some ways, you can tell Betsy is a few years older, as she makes some of those connections regarding What It All Could Mean much more quickly than Rilla. But wouldn’t you love the two of them to have a conversation in 1920, talking about their war experiences?
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As I’ve been thinking about this blog, I’ve been trying to decide whether to jump around a bit in topics or to dive in deep to certain historical themes. Obviously some subject, such as WWI, are going to be easier than others to do this with. I’ve also thought about taking one key author at a time and exploring all of there books. Just not sure, and it may be that I should just let the writing be my guide. But, do you have any thoughts?
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I know many of my readers (well, at least based on the comments) know this, but just in case I have a few that are not on the BT List-serve, did you know the marvelous Betsy-Tacy books are being re-issued? And they are gorgeous? And it’s the most exciting thing to happen in the kidlit history world, since, well, probably the BT convention? For more information or to order your very own copies, check out the Betsy-Tacy Society.