Thus far, the vast majority of books that I’ve talked about here are ones I first read as a child. I grew up with Anne and Jo and Laura. But there’s one very important exception. I didn’t discover Betsy Ray until I was an adult–halfway through college.
Oh, I had heard about the Betsy-Tacy books, largely from friends who shared my love for L. M. Montgomery. I had seen the article in Victoria Magazine about the 1997 convention. But let’s face it–when you’re in college, there’s not a ton of time for extra-curricular reading. That is, until you take a children’s literature class and have to read 100 books in one term.
So I picked up Betsy-Tacy, which just happened to be in my college library. And I really liked it. The girls felt real and natural–they acted like kids in a way that so many fictional children just don’t. When I came home for Spring Break, I bought the entire rest of the series at a local bookstore. Luckily, everything was in print.
Since then, I’ve read the books several times. I’ve made tons of Betsy-Tacy friends. I even traveled to Mankato this past summer the inspiration. And now, they are again back in print. These re-issues are so beautiful–I’m head over heels again! What is it about these books?
As a historian, there are certain subjects or areas of history that seem to get all the attention. Things like the Civil War. The frontier era. World War II. Important politicians. I’ve never been one to follow those kinds of trends: give me Reconstruction over the Civil War any day. Women’s history before traditional political history. And let’s talk about what happened after the frontier was settled.
The Betsy-Tacy books do that. She came of age exactly 100 years ago (DVHS, Class of 1910). In just the opening chapters of Heaven to Betsy, we learn about modern improvements in the Ray family’s new house (indoor bathrooms! gas stove! gas lights! furnace!). Not that Betsy liked the change: “Betsy thought her heart would break. Didn’t they know how much she loved that coal stove beside which she had read so many books while the tea kettle sang and the little flames leaped behind the isinglass window? Didn’t they know how she loved the yellow lamplight over the small cottage rooms? And she thought it was cozy to take baths in the kitchen beside the old wood-burning range!” There’s the push and pull of new technology here, one of those things we don’t often think about (especially regarding something as accepted as an indoor bathroom)
As Betsy mopes about the move, where does her mother suggest she go to cheer up? The new movie theater! The next year, she falls in love with a boy who just happens to drive a fancy red automobile. All of these things sound so familiar to us, but they’re just the beginning of the modern era. I’ve always loved learning about when something we now accept without question is new. How did people feel when they first saw a car? (just ask Tib in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown). How did the telephone change things? (ask anyone in Deep Valley!)
The Little House books are so often referred to when talking about historical ficition and books based on an author’s memories. Their “realness” is part of their appeal–and part of the reason for their inclusion in so many school curriculums. But I think Betsy-Tacy should be in the same sentence–and also a part of school curriculum. As a museum educator, I’m constantly on the search for non-pioneer historical fiction (since most of my museum’s history is about what happens after the frontier is settled). Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown is on my list. Blessedly, in these new reissues, Harper Collins has done an excellent job of pointing out the “realness” of Betsy as well. Each volume includes a brief biography of Maud, some additional information about each book (how things match up and where they don’t) and most importantly, tons of pictures. It’s a kidlit history fan’s dream come true!
These books portray those first awkward moments as we enter the 20th century. It’s a story that is both familiar and strange. And it’s one of my favorite stories of all.
There are several parties nationwide celebrating the re-issues of these books. Hope you’ll help us celebrate!
10/23 Bainbridge Island, WA at the Library http://www.krl.org/index.php/bainbridge-island this date is still a bit tentative
11/7 Highland Village, TX Barnes and Noble http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/event/3010339-8
11/8 St. Paul, MN at the Red Balloon Bookshop http://www.redballoonbookshop.com/
4/17/10 Dallas, TX, Dallas Heritage Village http://www.dallasheritagevillage.org/ (hey, that’s my museum. I wonder if there’s a connection. . . )