The best medicine

Yesterday, I was walking down the back staircase at work, not paying too much attention to things.  After all, I’ve walked down that staircase thousands of times.  But this time, I missed a step and managed to do a wonderful job of spraining my ankle.

I’ve done this once before, about five years ago, in an equally boring way–I stepped off a porch wrong.  It’s the same ankle, and I headed home early to prop it up.  With my desk configuration, it’s really hard to both elevate the ankle and keep working.  Once I got home, I realized this was a perfect minor injury for a reader.  Sometimes when you have a cold, you don’t always feel like reading.  But with a sprained ankle, I just need to sit.  Which is ideal for reading!

I also started thinking about some of my favorite literary heroines and their ankle woes.  First to mind was Anne, though technically she broke her ankle.  Of course, her story is much better than mine–Josie Pye dared her to walk the ridge pole of a roof.  As Anne said,

I must do it.  My honor is at stake.  I shall walk that ridge pole, Diana, or perish in the attempt.

And though Anne got bored while she was laid up, it does appear she had a good time.  Mention is made of the many books and flowers and visitors she had.  And Anne, ever the optimist tells Marilla later:

“Everybody has been so good and kind, Marilla,” sighed Anne happily, on the day when she could first limp across the floor.  “It isn’t very pleasant to be laid up; but there is a bright side to it, Marilla.  You find out how many friends you have.”

Throughout the rest of the series, she refers to her weak ankle, talking in the later books about how it aches before it rains.  Totally understand, and I’ve only sprained mine.

Betsy Ray also had weak ankles.  In Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown she takes a tumble off a sled and sprains her ankle.  The boys bring her home, and she gets set up on a couch with a pillow under her foot.  I love this line “Betsy felt heroic.”  She also mentions the delight of two new books to amuse her while she’s injured.  And of course, out of this incident comes her famous, tragic tale of Flossie.  Years later, Betsy conveniently uses her weak ankle to avoid some awkward boy trouble.  It’s now swollen, and it takes her three times to remember to say “ouch” as her father examines it, but she still pulls the following ploy:

“I’d just as soon stay in bed.  I don’t feel very good.  Not too bad,” she added hastily, remembering Tacy’s party the following night.

Friends parade through her bedroom.  There is some flirting with boys.  Tempting treats are offered, and books are brought.  After all, she’s “sick” but not contagious!  And she milks it for all she’s worth.

So, yes, sprained ankles are most annoying, especially when your office is upstairs and your museum is on 13 acres.  But as far as minor illnesses or injuries go, it could be much worse.  Excuse me while I pick up my book and keep reading.  The ankle requires it!

Isn’t that romantic?

The Minnesota Post recently made a list of best Dynamic Duos–in movies, literature, history, etc.  And on it, much to the pleasure of the Betsy-Tacy Society and other BT fans is Betsy and Joe as “Literary Romantic Couples”–alongside some couples that are definitely not found in children’s literature.

And though I certainly adore the fact that Betsy and Joe are listed–after all, the last chapter of Betsy and the Great World is one of the greatest romantic cliffhangers of all time, I can’t help but think of some of the other great couples of kidlit history.  In no particular order:

Ma and Pa Ingalls.  She follows him across the midwest, each time hoping for a better life, making homes in places that must have been very, very lonely.  Until she puts her foot down.  He plays his fiddle, makes jokes, and fiercely loves his family.  As a kid, they never would have been on the list.  As an adult, I admire how they stuck together, never argued in front of the kids, and both made compromises for each other.

Anne and Gilbert.  Though they ultimately became a somewhat boring couple in the later books, the early stuff is fabulous.  From the teasing and the competition to pushing each other when both have college dreams deferred, it’s an incredibly satisfying friendship–at least for Anne.  Gilbert loves her from the beginning, and it is sometimes very frustrating how long it takes Anne to see what’s right in front of her nose.  But he’s always there–rescuing her and waiting patiently. 

Betsy and Joe.  Though mentioned above, they deserve their own paragraph.  Betsy, daughter of one of the world’s greatest families, falls in love with orphan Joe.  And there are lots of adjustments to be made, mis-understandings, the usual heartache in young love.  But the misunderstanding almost kill the reader as they wait and wait for what has to happen.  And when it does!  Again, one of the best romantic cliffhangers and resolutions Ever.

Miss Allen, the Library Lady and Charlie.  The sisters of All-of-a-Kind Family already love the Library Lady, as she is the one with the books.  And Charlie is the mysterious peddler that works with their father who brings them treats.  By accident, the girls bring them together again–discovering  a tragic love story that was rightunder their noses.  So satisfying–and a wonderful realization of childhood fantasies.  What kid wouldn’t want to help out some of their favorite adults in that way?

Mary, Dickon and Colin.  Sometimes, love triangles happen.  And though the kids in The Secret Garden don’t really get to that part of life where romance really takes off, there is definitely some jealousy going on for Colin and Dickon.  Both fall in love with Mary, for very different reasons.  But perhaps the true romance here is the garden itself and the story behind it.  Sigh.

So, what am I leaving out?  Any other fabulous romances?  And another question: how did these stories shape your own childish thoughts about romance?

When I was a kid, reading through Montgomery, I had this idea that true romance took years to develop.  Seriously, how long did it take Anne and Gilbert to finally get together?  And then there’s the story of Leslie Moore–talk about depressing.  And all the other minor characters throughout her novels and short stories–people that had to wait 10, 20 years to be with the one they loved.  Yikes! 

Or what about the unfortunate idea that the man you’re really meant for will marry your sister?  I am still not over the whole Jo/Laurie/Amy thing.  Luckily, I had no sisters.

So while there are some great models, there are some truly frightening romantic scenarios in kidlit.  Perhaps I should blame my childhood reading on my very practical attitude towards romance.  Even as I continue to believe that my Joe is out there somewhere. . .

To be pretty. And grown up.

For me, it was dangly earrings, curly hair and contacts.  For Anne Shirley, it was upswept hair and long skirts.  For Betsy Ray, it was no freckles and curly hair.  And for Mona, it was a bob and red nail polish.  Those beacons to girls of what it might be to be grown up.  And even more importantly, to be pretty.

When I was young, I first desperately wanted curly hair.  Little did I realize how fabulous my straight glossy hair was–and I was even less aware that once I hit puberty, that straight hair would vanish.  So, I got a very classic 1980s perm in 4th grade.  Pierced ears were next.  Mom thought this was crazy talk–she doesn’t like needles, so the idea of having one pierce your ear just for fun?  Yep, not on her list of things to do.  But she relented, with the caveat that I could not have any earrings that dangled.  One birthday, my friend Jennifer gave me dangly earrings.  I begged and begged for mom to let me wear them–because then I would be fashionable and stylish.  Eventually, she did.  I still have those earrings.  They really aren’t terribly dangly–maybe an inch long.

But what I seriously pined for was contacts.  I was one of those lucky kids who got glasses in 3rd grade.  And remember, this was in the mid-1908s–not exactly a decade known for good glasses.  Once I hit junior high, I would sometimes just take off my glasses and look in the mirror.  Without those silly glasses, I was almost pretty.  Maybe I would finally have a boyfriend.  And be pretty.  And be grown up.  My 8th grade graduation present was contacts, and I wore them for the first time on the last day of school.  Some people barely recognized me.  I felt vindicated in my longing for contacts.  And I knew high school would be better.  It was, but not because of the contacts.

Looking back, we refer to those years as my ugly duckling years.  Not sure that I’m all that swanlike now, but things are definitely better.  If I was truly a bare-your-soul blogger, I would post one of those truly bad pictures from those years.  But I’m not going to do that.  Because this is a blog that is about books and history.

So about those books and history–or at least history other than my own.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve recently fallen in love with the Melendy family.  In The Saturdays, set in the 1940s, one of my very favorite chapters was about Mona’s Saturday.  She does what I think every other awkward, teenage girl has longed to do–she went out on her own and did what she thought was necessary to be pretty.  And grown up.  She knows exactly what she’s doing:

“After all, nobody ever asked me not to,” she told herself.  “I never promised I wouldn’t.”  But all the time she knew that she was quibbling; the corner of her mind that never let itself be fooled was well aware that neither Father nor Cuffy would approve of what she was about to do.

So, she goes into the beauty shop and for $1.50, she takes an important step toward becoming grown up.  She has her hair cut and her nails manicured.  She loves the way she looks.  But she also knows that when she gets home, her family may not feel the same way.

Rush said, “Jeepers!  You look just like everybody.  Any of those dumb high school girls that walk along the street screaming and laughing and bumping into people.  Why couldn’t you have waited a while?”

“What in heaven’s name has got into you, Mona?” inquired Father, red faced from choking.  “I never thought you were silly or vain.  When you’re eighteen years old if you want to go in for that sort of thing it will be all right, I suppose.  But not now.  There’s no way we can bring your braids back, but at least we don’t have to put up with those talons.”

And so Mona eventually gets the red nailpolish off and is properly chastised for growing up too fast.  But though I had never done a similiar thing, I understood her motivations so well.  And I began to think about previous kidlit history heroines and their own steps towards trying to be pretty and grown up.

Anne Shirley, set in the late 1800s, longs for puffed sleeves.  But there are other mile-markers on the road to being grown up.  On Anne’s 13th birthday, she and Diana discuss how close they are to being grown up–Anne is convinced “that in two more years I’ll be really grown up.”  Diana declares:

“In four more years we’ll be able to put our hair up,” said Diana.  “Alice Bell is only sixteen and she is wearing her hair up, but I think that’s ridiculous.  I shall wait until I’m seventeen.”

Fast forward, twenty years or so, and you meet Betsy Ray.  When Betsy is 13, Anna comes to live with the family.  And Anna brings two very magical things into Betsy’s life: Magic Wavers and freckle cream.  Both quickly become an integral part of her new beauty routine. 

After supper, Betsy telephone Tacy and Winona for prolonged conversations, then went upstairs to wind her hair on Magic Waers, take a warm bath some of Julia’s bath salts in it, and rub the new freckle cream into her face.  Wrapped in a kimono she sat down to manicure her nails.

But Betsy still doesn’t feel like she’s pretty.

“Oh, Tacy!” she said in a lowered voice.  “I wish I was prettier.”

“Why, Betsy, you’re plenty pretty enough.  You’re better than pretty.”

“I don’t want to be better than pretty.  I’m tired of being better than pretty.  Sweet looking!  Interesting looking!  Pooh for that!  I want to be plain pretty like you are.”

These girls, generations apart, are all struggling to be 13–right on the edge of being grown up, but not there yet.  Feeling not yet comfortable in their own skin, and definitely not pretty.  And everyone wants to grow up faster–to get through those awkwards years and on to the glamorous future.  And I think these struggles are a very large part of why these books remain popular today.  Who hasn’t been snarky about another girl’s fashion choices?  Who hasn’t wished they weren’t just one step closer to being grown up?  And though the standards of beauty have changed–from rogue being unheard of in Anne’s time, to only on one woman in town (Miss Mix) in Betsy’s time, to being something expected when you’re grown up in Mona’s time, the emotions and the feelings are the same.   A 13 year old girl just wants to be pretty.  And grown up.

ETA: Last night, after posting this, I was lying in bed, trying to sleep and realized that I had forgotten one of the best, funniest incidents of a teen girl struggling to be pretty: Anne dying her hair green!  How could I forget this?  I blame the cold.  At any rate, one of the recurring themes in Anne is her hatred of her red hair.  But when the peddler’s potion turns it green, it is one of the funnier moments in the books. 

“Dyed it!  Dyed your hair!  Anne Shirley, didn’t you know it was a wicked thing to do?”

“Yes, I knew it was a lilttle wicked,” admitted Anne.  “But I thought it was worth while to be a little wicked to get rid of red hair.  I counted thecost, Marilla.  Besides, I meant to be extra good in other ways to make up for it.”

The things we’ll all do, in those desperate attempts to be beautiful.  And yet, one of the signs of Anne growing up, besides talking a bit less, is that she comes to accept her hair.  It deepens a bit as she enters adulthood and becomes a “lovely shade of auburn.” I suppose patience is a virtue (I certainly got my curly hair), but boy, it certainly is hard to wait.

The beginning

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 this date is still a bit tentative

11/7      Highland Village, TX Barnes and Noble

11/8      St. Paul, MN at the Red Balloon Bookshop

4/17/10 Dallas, TX, Dallas Heritage Village  (hey, that’s my museum.  I wonder if there’s a connection. . . )

Opening Shots, Part 2

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?

* * * * *

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?

* * * * *

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.