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.