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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