Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury

The title: The Besty-Tacy Treasury
The author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Publication: Harperperennial, 2011 (originally 1940s)
Got it from: Amazon, 2012

There was a time when I was a little girl, about 8-12 years old, when I really, really, really wanted to be a Victorian child.  Not a poor workhouse Victorian girl, of course, but a genteel or at least middle-class one.  I used to go to sleep at night desperately wishing I could wake up in a sort of fairytale 19th century that existed only in books.  It could be the Concord house the March sisters lived in during the Civil War, or the Darling's nursery, or Green Gables, or even Sara Crewe's India before the whole orphan thing.  What did it matter that there was no television or computers or even proper plumbing?  All I wanted in life was shining ringlets, ribbons, velvet dresses and black stockings.  I wanted a doll with a pram, and a house in the city with tall steps, and the kind of birthday parties where girls wore sashes and drank punch and played pin-the-tail.

So how was it that I missed the Betsy-Tacy books growing up?  I certainly read everything I could get my hands on at the library, especially if it featured a spunky 19th century girl.  The only thing I can figure out is that my library didn't have them, probably because they were American.  It's such a shame, because reading them today, I know I would have loved them.

I probably wouldn't have picked up them up at all as an adult if they hadn't been one of the books read by the Mother-Daughter book club in Heather Vogel Frederick's wonderful series.  The name Besty-Tacy sounded vaguely familiar, although I originally confused it with the "Betsy" series by Carolyn Haywood, a series which my library did have and I did read and which were published around the same time as the Betsy-Tacy books.  

This Betsy, however, was based on author Maud Hart Lovelace's childhood growing up in turn-of-the-century Mankato, Minnesota.  Reading the behind-the-scenes notes at the back, it's clear that the "Deep Valley" of Betsy's world is almost an exact mirror of Mankato, and Betsy's family and friends are actually Maud's.  The four books of the Betsy-Tacy treasury show an idyllic American lifestyle, similar to the 19th century world I lived in my head as a child.  Differences between then and now are fascinating, not frustrating, grown-up problems barely exist, and each day is a delightful, unexpected adventure.

In the first book in the series, Betsy-Tacy, Betsy Ray is turning five years old and a new child, Tacy Kelly, moves into the neighbourhood.  After an initial misunderstanding, the two girls become fast friends.  What follows is a series of gentle vignettes that show the best parts of growing up as a girl.  Betsy and Tacy make and sell coloured sand, decorate a piano box as a house, explore their neighbourhood and imagine driving the milk buggy.  One chapter highlights the stark contrast between Betsy's world and ours: after a short illness, one of Tacy's many siblings, baby Beatrice, dies.  In a wonderful scene, illustrated beautifully by Lois Lenski, the two girls leave coloured Easter eggs for the birds to take to Baby Bee in heaven.  I cried reading this.

Alright.  I can't even look at this picture without getting teary.

At the end of the story, the girls meet Tib Mueller, who will be the third of their trio for the rest of the series.

In the second book of the series, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, the girls are now eight years old and their world is starting to expand a bit.  Tacy gets diphtheria, another indication that it's not quite modern times yet.  One of the biggest plot threads of the book is the girls' attempts to learn how to fly, followed by a visit to a street fair where they get to see a "flying lady."  They attempt to put on a "flying lady" show and in the end have their hopes of learning to fly dashed.  This book shows us our first glimmerings of Betsy the author, testing out her imagination on her friends.

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Hill is an interesting book.  The story starts out on a humorous note, with the girls falling in love with the young King of Spain and trying to figure out how they can marry him.  They also become obsessed with royalty and plan to crown Tib as May Queen.  They are brought into contact with a local Syrian community and befriend a little Syrian girl, whom they defend from bullies.  The last half of the book is taken up with an epic battle between Betsy & co and Betsy's sister Julia and her friends, over who will be May Queen.  In the end they discover a real-life princess is living in Deep Valley. (Spoiler alert: it's the Syrian girl).

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown is often considered a favourite among fans.  The girls are now twelve and are spending more time outside their little neighbourhood.  They befriend a girl named Winona, whom they try to "hypnotize" into taking them to a matinee of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  They also experience their first sight of a "horseless carriage." They start noticing boys now (Betsy's older sister has a beau) and Betsy begins to hone her writing skills by visiting the newly-built Carnegie Library and reading all the classics.  We are also introduced to Mrs. Poppy,  a local retired actress, who befriends the girls and begins the search for Betsy's long-lost Uncle Keith, who ran away as an actor years earlier.

I'm so glad they're re-issuing these hard-to-find books in spiffy new anthologies.  I want to read the rest of the series, which takes us all the way to Betsy's early married life.  I so enjoyed reading these and being transported to another time and place, where everything seems so safe and familiar, and yet wonderfully old-fashioned.

No comments: