A Betsy-Tacy Addendum: I Was Wrong about the Hookah!

In my post on Maud Hart Lovelace’s autobiographical Betsy-Tacy books, I made an error about a hookah. During our long-ago trip to Mankato (Lovelace’s hometown), a  Betsty-Tacy fan insisted that a Syrian immigrant smoked hashish in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.

I wrote, “May I say that I don’t remember this at all, and cannot imagine Lovelace using the word ‘hookah. He was probably smoking tobacco. Where would an impoverished Syrian immigrant get hashish in Deep Valley, Minnesota?”

This morning I checked the chapter called “Little Syria” in my copy of Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Hill.  And there is a hookah!

O Di Immoratales! Why I Want to Move to Mankato

I would love to move to Mankato, Minnesota, the hometown of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the autobiographical Betsy-Tacy series.  It is a lovely, small university town – but not too small – known as Deep Valley in Lovelace’s charming novels. The downtown has changed over the years – most of the stores are now vacant, and there is no sign of Betsy’s father’s shoestore- but Betsy/Maud’s house and her friend Tacy’s have been restored as museums by the Betsy-Tacy Society

I am a fan of the Betsy-Tacy books, as are several celebrities, among them Anna Quindlen, Laura Lippmann, and Bette Midler.  Lovelace’s ten-book series is a women’s bildungsroman, and Lovelace a midwestern Louisa May Alcott. 

Set in the early twentieth century, the Betsy-Tacy series follows the lives and adventures of two best friends, Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly.  The first novel, Betsy-Tacy,  describes the meeting of Betsy and Tacy in kindergarten, and in the subsequent books Lovelace takes us downtown, over the Big HIll, and t all the way up to high school grduation, Betsy’s trip abroad, and Betsy’s wedding. 

Readers are especially fond of Betsy, the real heroine; Tacy is a quiet, smart Catholic girl, relegated to the role of sidekick.   Betsy has a vivid imagination and lots of plans: she is also an aspiring writer who writes stories and verse at a desk that was formerly her Uncle Keith’s trunk.  (Uncle Keith is an actor).  Her mother fosters creativity: Betsy’s  older sister, Julia, wants to be an opera singer.   

The family has always praised Betsy’s writing, but a high school a teacher  criticizes her work unkindly.  Betsy’s mother and two sisters are indignant, but Mr. Ray is equable: “It wouldn’t do Betsy any harm to learn about commas.”  This spurs more indignation: Mrs. Ray points out that no one worried about Shakespeare’s commas, and Julia suggests that Betsy may be the next Shakespeare!  How wonderful to have such a supportive family.  

In high school, there is much singing around the Rays’ piano, making fudge, and ice-skating, or, in Betsy’s case, shivering by the pond drinking cocoa and making excuses not to skate: she has weak ankles and is unathletic. (I related to this.)

I had not remembered that Betsy took Latin, but she and her friends treat it as an amusing secret language.  They often exclaim mysteriously, “O di immortales!”  (“O immortal gods!”)  The sophomores, Carney and Bonnie, like to quote the opening sentence of Caesar’s Gallic Wars: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (“All Gaul is divided into three parts”), while Betsy, a freshman, can only conjugate the verb amare (to love).  The  girls spend so much time giggling over Latin that Carney’s boyfriend Larry calls them a triumvirate.

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

This sounds like the kind of absurd thing my friends and I used to laugh over! Were we influenced by Betsy and Tacy?

Years ago my husband and I biked on the Sakatah State Trail, a 39-mile trail which starts (or ends, depending on your point-of-view) in Mankato.  There were no Betsy-Tacy museums then, but we found a self-guided Betsy-Tacy tour brochure.  We walked past Betsy’s house and Tacy’s house – you could look at the exterior but could not go inside back then – and looked at a few other landmarks. Then we rested  on the Betsy-Tacy bench on the Big Hill.  (The third book is called Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.)  While we were swigging from our water bottles, a barefoot stranger meandered across the street and offered to take our picture.  She was genial and gabby: she  animatedly insisted  that in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill,  an elderly immigrant in Little Syria is  smoking hashish in a hookah.  

May I say that I don’t remember this at all, and cannot imagine Lovelace using the word “hookah.” He was probably smoking tobacco. Where would an impoverished Syrian immigrant get hashish in Deep Valley, Minnesota?

Such are the problems of post-modern Betsy-Tacy criticism. 

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

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.

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