Forget Alcott, Maud Lovelace is Queen of the Girls


Betsy-Tacy Books: Insightful, accessible, progressive work outshines Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery. Three years ago, I discovered two rare children's books by Maud Hart Lovelace at the Enoch Pratt sale. In tip-top condition, these books can fetch upwards of $100; the Pratt wanted $2 each. I pounced quickly, but couldn't rejoice at my singular good fortune, indicative as it was of a literary injustice. Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series has never attained the classic status it deserves, which is why the Pratt felt free to sell "Winona's Ponycart" and "Emily of Deep Valley" in the first place.

I place Lovelace's books alongside "Little Women," "Anne of Green Gables" and Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series. No - that's inadequate. Lovelace's work is superior to that of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, equal to Wilder's. Let other women cry over Beth's death scene, let the Japanese flock to Prince Edward Island in search of all things Anne. My heart belongs to Deep Valley, Minn., and the Big Hill, where Betsy and Tacy picnic when the weather turns fair.

To its credit, HarperTrophy has just re-issued "Betsy and the Great World," and "Betsy's Wedding," the series' last two installments. Written at mid-century by Lovelace, the 10 books follow Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly from first meeting through their marriages. They are enchanting books with hundreds of hard-core fans - including Anna Quindlen, who has said she annually re-reads only three writers: Austen, Dickens and Lovelace.

The books' charms are simple and accessible for readers of any age: A strong, progressive heroine, a modern prose style, timeless stories. Parents and children interested in a respite from today's determinedly relevant books will find a refuge in Deep Valley.

Lovelace (1892-1980), had written several novels when she began, at daughter Merian's urging, the autobiographical Betsy-Tacy series in 1940. She apparently had a keen memory not only for the day-to-day details of her life, but for her feelings at any given age. The adult narrative voice is notably absent in the Betsy-Tacy books. When Betsy makes mistakes - and she makes plenty - she divines the lessons on her own.

At the end of "Betsy was a Junior," an account of her most frivolous year, Betsy ponders her "aft agley" plans.

"All those resolutions she had made on Babcock's Bay! How they had been smashed to smithereens! She wondered whether life consisted of making resolutions and breaking them, or climbing up and slipping down.

"... But all of [her friends] were growing up, Betsy thought intensely. They would never be quite so silly again. The foolish crazy things they had done this year they would do less frequently until they didn't do them at all.

" 'We're growing up,' Betsy said aloud. She wasn't even sure she liked it. But it happened, and then it was irrevocable. There was nothing you could do about it except try to see that you grew up into the kind of human being you wanted to be."

True, Betsy's loving parents are there to support her in every sense of the word. But this may be her greatest obstacle in obtaining classic status: Betsy is neither poor nor unloved. It is a disturbingly common theme in many children's books that either state bestows virtue, while the combination of material comfort and paternal love apparently debauches.

The Ray household is unabashedly middle-class, with money enough for nice clothes, a servant girl, college educations, and European tours. Betsy's family and friends also think the world of her, encouraging her ambitions as a writer, atypical for a girl at the turn of the century. When her father jokingly suggests Betsy might not be Shakespeare, sister Julia replies: "Who knows? Maybe this generation is going to produce another Shakespeare, and maybe it's Betsy."

The Betsy-Tacy books offer a reader the same safe haven the Rays create for their daughters. But they are never candy-coated. In "Betsy-Tacy Go Over the Big Hill," the two friends, now inseparable with a third girl named Tib, confront the racism generated by the presence of a Syrian community in their town. In "Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown," Betsy's mother is reunited with her black sheep brother. When Betsy goes abroad as a young woman ("Betsy and the Great World"), she sees a continent on the verge of war.

In the very first book, "Betsy-Tacy," Tacy's baby sister dies. After the funeral, 5-year-old Betsy goes to see her friend, sensing she must comfort her, but unsure how.

"After a while, Tacy said, 'It smelled like Easter in the church. Bee looked awful pretty. She had candles all around her.'

" 'Did she?' asked Betsy.

" 'But my mamma felt awful bad,' said Tacy.

"Betsy said nothing.

" 'Of course,' said Tacy, 'you know that Bee has only gone to Heaven.'

" 'Oh, of course,' said Betsy.

"But Tacy's lip was shaking. That made Betsy feel queer. So she said quickly, 'Heaven's awful nice.' "

The first four books were written for younger readers and illustrated with Lois Lenski's angular drawings. When Betsy enters high school, the series changes abruptly: The stories lengthen to almost 300 pages, while Vera Neville provides more flattering illustrations of Betsy and her friends.

These are the books true fans prize, perhaps because of the introduction of Joe Willard, a handsome classmate. From the moment Betsy first sees him, eating an apple and reading "The Three Musketeers," she is smitten. Theirs is a great love story, filled with the fits and starts that make its conclusion, in the just reissued "Betsy's Wedding," so satisfying.

Interestingly, Joe is the least true-to-life figure in the series, which can trace almost every character to a counterpart in Lovelace's native Mankato, Minn. Although Lovelace based him on her husband, Delos, the two were not high school sweethearts. But I suspect Delos might have flattered Maud as Joe did Betsy:

" 'Your hair isn't curled. Do you know," he continued, studying her critically, 'I like your hair straight.' He liked her hair straight! If he had looked through all the poetry books in the world he couldn't have found a better compliment to pay her." (From, of course, "Betsy and Joe.")

Alas, the HarperTrophy editions of the Betsy-Tacy books have not done particularly well, despite the support of two societies devoted to Maud Hart Lovelace, a World Wide Web page and the Betsy-Tacy list serve. As a result, there are no plans to bring out three related books, which center on other Deep Valley girls. This is a blow to dedicated readers, some of whom have never had the chance to read "Winona's Ponycart," "Emily of Deep Valley" and, the exceedingly rare "Carney's House Party." The scarcity of these books has forced the hard-core into a black-market that circulates photocopies in defiance of copyright laws. "I would be glad to give up my photocopy and buy the real thing," one Betsy-Tacy fan told me, "but the real thing's not available."

Next year, the Betsy-Tacy Society will celebrate the 100th meeting of Betsy and Tacy at a convention in Mankato. There, women who know what Tacy gave Betsy on her 5th birthday (a glass pitcher with a gold-painted rim) and how many times Betsy competed in the Essay Contest (three, always against Joe Willard) will tour the real places Lovelace evoked, including Betsy's and Tacy's homes at the foot of the Big Hill. It would be the perfect time for HarperTrophy to declare amnesty for the black market readers and bring out copies of the last three books.

Failing that, we can only hope the Betsy-Tacy Society is successful in its drive to purchase the books and donate them to local libraries. We might need to revive fewer Ophelias if we had more Betsy Rays.

Laura Lippman, a feature writer at The Sun, writes frequently about publishing. Daughter of a former Baltimore City schools librarian, she owns every Betsy-Tacy book except "Carney's House Party."

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