Notes on Reading: In Transit, Library Books, and a Betsy-Tacy Revival

Is reading common or uncommon in the twenty-first century?  It is  difficult to know. Now that smart phones dominate people’s lives,  I cannot tell whether passengers on the bus are reading or doing some other activity.  I never see books anymore, and I rarely see Kindles or Nooks.  Although independent bookstore owners claim business is thriving, at least fifteen indies have closed here since the ‘90s—and I surmise that the one remaining  is a tax write-off.

Commuters used to read newspapers and books.  The best thing about riding the bus, besides the transportation, was feeling like a member of a secret reading society.  Women with disheveled wet hair (I was one of many who didn’t blow-dry) read novels, while  men in suits read immense biographies. Yes, that’s a sexual stereotype, but I swear it was true. When I wasn’t craning my neck to see what others were reading, I got so absorbed in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years that I read beyond my stop.  It was not embarrassing:  colleagues in the break room laughed about having the same experience.

Reading has always been my favorite activity, whether I was sedentary or in motion. When I was seven or eight, I was so absorbed in Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language, a boarding school novel, that I continued to read it while walking home from school. My mother, in the parlance of the day, expressed surprise that I didn’t “fall down and break my neck.” Later, when I was older,  I got to walk to the magical public library:  scary Miss Westgate, the stern librarian, was crabby, but her wide-ranging collection of children’s books made the visits worthwhile.

At the library I discovered Maud Hart Lovelace’s charming Betsy-Tacy series, which followed the lives of best friends Betsy and Tacy from age five through Betsy’s wedding.  They lived in Deep Valley, Minnesota (actually Mankato, Maud’s hometown). These are some of the best American novels about small-town life in the early 20th century. (Library of America, you should acquire these!  I enjoyed them much more than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.)  And  I’ve been to Mankato, a charming college town, surrounded by lakes, farms, and hills.  If the weather weren’t so cold, we might live there.  

Vera Neville’s Illustration of the Betsy-Tacy bench on the big hill.

We accidentally took a Betsy-Tacy self-guided tour early in the 2000s.  My husband and I were riding a bike trail that went through Mankato, so we stopped at the library to pick up the tour pamphlet.  At that time, the Betsy-Tacy Society had acquired the houses  of Betsy/Maud and Tacy, I think, but they were not open yet:  we could only see the outsides.  We did climb the Big Hill, though, a landmark in the series, and sat  on the Betsy-Tacy bench.

Then an eccentric woman came barefoot out of her house and took our picture.  She chatted about Betsy-Tacy lore:  she wanted to know if we’d noticed that in one of the early books, an old man with a hookah in Little Syria is smoking hashish? (Well, perhaps she’s right:  there is a hookah!)

Of course I also love it that Betsy, an aspiring writer and lover of language, takes Latin in high school.  In Heaven to Betsy, a novel about her freshman year, one chapter is entitled “A Triumvirate of Lady Bugs.” After school, Betsy and her older friends, two sophomores, sit in Carnie Sibley’s yard stripping the porch of ivy leaves and making wreathes, which they wear askew like drunken Romans.   “O di immortales!” they exclaim.  Betsy, who has just started Latin, can only conjugate the verb to love:  “Amo, amas, amat.”

 Some boys tease the three girls.

“Hey! You’ll be a triumvirate!” What, Betsy wondered, was a triumvirate? 

“Girls, we’re a triumvirate!”cried Carney, flashing her dimple.“I want to be Caesar.He’s so cute in the pictures.You can be Crassus Bonnie, and Betsy, you can be Pompey.” 

“A Triumvirate for Lady Bugs!”jeered Larry.

“There are three of you boys, too,” cried Bonnie, soft giggles bubbling.“You’re a triumvirate your own selves. What’s the name of yours? Make one up, somebody.’’

“They’re a triumvirate of Potato Bugs!” said Betsy.

The Betsy-Tacy novels were reissued in four omnibus editions  not long ago (three in 2009, and one in 2011). And I learned that Betsy-Tacy fandom is shared by many writers.  The introductions to these books were written by Anna Quindlen, Laura Lippman, and Judy Blume, among others.   

Maud_Hart_Lovelace
Maud Hart Lovelace

All women should reread the Betsy-Tacy series.  These novels are entertaining, and they also illuminate women’s struggles and relationships.   Betsy wants to be a writer, and earnestly writes stories and poetry at her desk (actually her actor Uncle Keith’s old trunk), but in high school she neglects it for social life.  Year after year, she is chosen to compete in the high school writing contest, but because she doesn’t do any research, she tries to cover up with flowery phrases—and it doesn’t work. 

Dear Betsy!  Relationships and writing, boyfriends and family.  Can you do everything?  And when she gets married, she struggles with the same issues.

10 thoughts on “Notes on Reading: In Transit, Library Books, and a Betsy-Tacy Revival”

  1. Oh YES – LOA should do Betsy Tacy! How can we make this happen?
    I reread most of the series a few years ago and was particularly impressed by the books for younger readers. They exemplify how a book can be simple, but not simplistic.

    Like

    1. They are so much fun–and cover such a long period of time! LOA has done Alcott and Wilder and I think these would fit in. Betsy is the Americn Anne of Green Gables, though some would say Alcott’s Jo is.

      On Wed, Nov 27, 2019 at 6:12 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

      >

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy Thanksgiving Kat!

    I loved reading while commuting to work; it was a great way to pass the time. The Betsy Tracy books are so good. I tried getting a great niece interested in them, but failed. She does like Wilder though, so I guess 1 out of 2 isn’t bad. The next time we are tootling in the mid west, I hope to visit Mankato, a Wilder site or 2, the Willa Cather house and the Bess Streeter Aldrich house too.
    I meant to tell you this before, but the U of Iowa in Iowa City, just purchased a collection of artwork from the Sackner collection. Marvin (Sackner) told us that he expects the collection (or large parts of it) to be on display April 20 to sometime in July. The “collection” may not be your cup of tea, but it is huge and varied. Marvin bought 15 or 17 pieces of my husbands, but I’m not sure if they will be on display. We hope to hit the road to see it.
    Jean

    Like

    1. Oh my goodness, I’d love to see the art! And we do go to Iowa City sometimes, so I’ll enjoy it. Maybe the Betsy-Tacy books are too old-fashioned nowadays, but at least they have reissued them for our generation. And there ARE some great writers’ museums in the Midwest. There’s also a new Writers’ Museum in Chicago. I’ve never been there, and I might have the name wrong. As for me, I want to go to Connecticut and visit Edith Wharton’s home. (I THINK it’s Connecticut!)

      Like

      1. Kat,
        I will look into the writers museum in Chicago whenever I go there. Please try to see the art, I suspect you will like it.
        Edith Wharton’s house is in Stockbridge MA and well worth touring. And, if you are in the area, I also recommend Emily Dickenson’s house in Amherst, Daniel Chester French’s house and studio in Stockbridge and Herman Melville’s house, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield Ma.
        Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain have houses in Hartford CT.
        We lived in MA for over 30 years and loved going to all the sites!
        Jean

        Like

  3. OH! *clutches invisible pearls* How did I not know that there is a tour? How I would love this.

    When I was a girl, I couldn’t find all the volumes in the series, so I started to reread the early ones after we moved to Toronto (a much larger library system than I had access to, previously) and they are so delightful.

    I’m still making my plans for 2020 reading projects, but this series is on the list (but I’m also trying to focus on my own shelves and I only own two of the middle volumes).

    For those who love Little House, or have readers in their lives who do, I wholeheartedly recommend Louise Erdrich’s five volumes about Little Frog, written to complement those classic volumes, and to offer another version of life on those lands alongside the settlers’ perspectives. They’re beautifully written: engaging and moving stories.

    Like

    1. Yay, another Betsy-Tacy fan! I did not know about Louise Erdrich’s Little Frog novels. Another series to add to my list.

      Will look forward to hearing about your 2020 plans.

      On Thu, Dec 5, 2019 at 3:57 PM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

      >

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s