In Praise of Betsy-Tacy: A Tribute to Maud Hart Lovelace and Her Classic Novels
I discovered the work of Maud Hart Lovelace at a very young age. In fact, I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t count Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly among my best book friends. I grew up reading and rereading the first four books in this classic series of an imaginative girl growing up in the early 1900s, which were published in the 1940s and ‘50s. As a child, I spent countless hours copying the Lois Lenski illustrations in painstaking pencil, acting out the scenes with my dolls, and writing endless fan fiction on an old computer.
When I was thirteen, I endeavored to read Heaven to Betsy—the first of the series that depicts Betsy’s experiences in high school. But it was quite a shock to find that so many changes had taken place—moving to High Street! No more yellow cottage! Tib in Milwaukee! Betsy struggling to adapt to a new neighborhood! It was not to be borne. I went back to rereading the first familiar four.
Nevertheless, I picked up Heaven to Betsy again the spring I turned fifteen. Suffering from a nasty cold, I read all four high school books in a matter of days, spirinting through each one so quickly that they began to blur together in a cozy whirlwind of brass bowls, Rhetoricals, green stationery, essay contests, and Okto Deltas. I still tend to think of the four high school books as one cohesive volume that tells a single story from beginning to end. The ending of Betsy and Joe, for instance, circles back to the beginning of Heaven to Betsy, as Betsy’s two journeys to Butternut Center mirror each other in heartwarming precision. This is just one example of Maud’s stunning symmetry throughout the series that I grew to love in its entirety—after I’d grown used to the changes in Betsy’s life, just like Betsy herself.
I still remember the twinge of satisfaction mingled with disappointment that I felt upon finishing Betsy’s Wedding, the last in the series. My beloved series of books was over—forever! But the splendid thing about Maud’s novels is the re-readability. For me, none of the magic has dissipated as I reread the series for the umpteenth time—I still derive the same joy from Betsy and Tacy’s paper doll games that I did at age six. And I still feel the stings of dismay and swirls of excitement of Betsy’s ups and downs in romance, the same way I did at age fifteen. For me, the fun and fascination has only increased over the years, and I notice something new about the books every time. These books are not merely historical fiction—or school stories—or family sagas—and they’re not just about an aspiring writer, or romance, or music, or broadening travel—they’re all of those things and more.
The enchantment doesn’t even end with the main Betsy-Tacy series. Maud also penned three other novels set in Deep Valley (based on Mankato, Minnesota), including my personal favorite of her books: the lovely Emily of Deep Valley. It’s an unforgettable story of an orphaned girl who dreads a lonely winter after her friends head off to college without her. I won’t give away any spoilers, but this story of self-worth involves plenty of poetry, a pinch of genealogy, and one of my all-time favorite book heroes.
Best of all, these stories—including Emily’s—were not only based on real-life events, but real-life people. Exhaustively chronicled by Sharla Scannell Whalen, the world of Deep Valley comes alive in The Betsy-Tacy Companion (Portalington Press, 1991). I devoured this biography until I’d absorbed every detail of Maud’s life and how she recreated her past with pen and paper in such an enduring way. (An additional bonus: the Companion is also highly re-readable, and you’ll be poring over footnotes for years to come!) 🙂
For several years, these timeless tales were out-of-print, and sadly unavailable to potential readers. But at last, in 2009, the novels were reissued in beautiful editions from HarperCollins, due in large part to the effort of Jennifer Hart, a longtime Betsy-Tacy fan and Senior Vice President and Associate Publisher of HarperCollins. Now, there are more Betsy-Tacy fans than ever, as evidenced by the continued success of the Betsy-Tacy Society and the Betsy-Tacy Convention, an event that was held just last week in Minneapolis.
I often find that my favorite book characters—the ones who feel the most realistic, and the most like good friends—were actually based on real people. The cast of the Judy Bolton mystery series, Little Women’s immortal March sisters, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind family, and Betsy Ray’s “Crowd” were all drawn from real-life individuals. It is this subtle but significant verisimilitude—along with Maud’s feel-good writing style—that have attracted such a legion of dedicated fans.
I certainly hope that, if you haven’t yet discovered this series, you’ll soon give them a try. I guarantee they will warm your heart and inspire your imagination. Disclaimer: you’ll probably wind up wishing that you grew up in the 1900s, too.