In my mind I keep a list of cities I’d love to visit someday. Dublin, Ireland. Rome, Italy. Mankato, Minnesota – otherwise known as Deep Valley.
As the saying goes, one of these things is not like the other. But if you love Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy Books as much as I do, you know that Mankato, the town that inspired the books’ setting, is a powerfully attractive destination. Truth is, I’ve yet to meet a Betsy-Tacy fan who does not long, on an almost primal level, to spend some serious time in Deep Valley.
So what exactly are the Betsy-Tacy stories? On their most basic level, they are a series about a girl and her best friends, living in a small town in Minnesota at the turn of the last century. (The books, though fiction, are largely autobiographical; Lovelace based nearly all of the characters on people she knew.) Betsy and Tacy (and, later, their new friend Tib) get into all of the gentle scrapes that you’d expect of three imaginative but good kids growing up under the gentle eyes of their families and neighbors. What’s really great about the series, though, is that the girls grow up. Along with the four books about the girls as children, there are six more: four of them cover Betsy’s high school years, in which she navigates the waters of dating and discerns her writing career; one book focuses on the tour of Europe that she makes, alone, in her early twenties; and the final book, Betsy’s Wedding, tells how she marries her intellectual and creative equal, the brilliant Joe Willard.
My own acquaintance with Betsy and Tacy came through my mother, who had read the books herself as a child in the 1950s. It took one volume of their girls’ experiences, complete with Lois Lenski’s charming line drawings, for me to become Betsy and Tacy’s staunchest seven-year-old fan. When I was a freshman in high school, I re-discovered Betsy through the high school novels, and it was like revisiting an old friend who had grown up as surely as I had. At fourteen, Betsy did the same things I did: she wrote in a journal, developed a massive crush on a seriously cute guy, went to dances and football games. Though the high school books were out of print, I cobbled together a complete set thanks to library book sales. The copies were ragged on the edges, with library stamps and suspicious-looking stains on the pages, but that didn’t matter. What mattered – then as now — were the stories themselves, and the characters who quickly became some of my dearest friends. Now, at the age of thirty-six, I have realized that there are no other books I’ve re-read as often as I’ve re-read these.
For one thing, this series is a tribute to the power of community. Deep Valley is a town where everyone knows your name, but in the nicest way. Though Betsy and her friends dream of seeing the Great World, as they call it, there is nothing about Deep Valley that is hostile to their imaginations. There is none of the provincial narrow-mindedness that is often found in stories of small towns, no gossiping neighbors who defeat Betsy and her dreams of becoming a writer. It’s also a community where local history is known and respected, where kids can play alone on the Big Hill without fear. Growing up in Silicon Valley, in 1960s suburban tract home, a little bit of me ached for the bucolic paradise of a small rural town, where Betsy and her friends could pick wildflowers and go sledding. Even now, I rather envy it.
Betsy is also, in the stories, surrounded by a smaller community of family and friends. Her family is cozily close-knit; her parents take their three daughters on a yearly pilgrimage to the place where they married, and they let each girl grow up at her own pace, following her individual dreams. Betsy is also a part of The Crowd, a group of high school students of both genders who gather to sing around the piano and go on picnics. There are no Mean Girls in the stories, no boys who pressure their girlfriends to cross boundaries they don’t want to cross. And though Betsy does, her sophomore year, date the wrong boy for her — someone who makes her tamp down her natural ebullience and alter her personality — she learns her mistake before she is too far invested in him, and before she has irrevocably damaged her healthy sense of self-worth. If only all teenage girls were so lucky.
On another, most primal level, I loved – and love — these books because they are so upbeat. When I was a teen, I was distressed by most young adult fiction. It was so dark, rife with family conflicts or physical abuse or characters who found themselves in sexual situations that were still years in the future for me. Though there is certainly a virtue in fiction that holds up a mirror to the complexities of real life, and though I don’t as a rule believe that teens are not ready to be exposed to difficult subject matter, I also think that in the churny waters of adolescence, there’s a place for books that are, simply, happy – books where bad things happen but are resolved with no lasting harm, books where family and friends are a part of the circle that keeps us whole, not antagonists who undermine our emotional wellness.
And, as a writer myself, I admire Lovelace’s craft. Her writing is dynamic and sprightly, and though she talks often of sentimental matters, she does so with a freshness that holds up beautifully, sixty years later. And it’s impossible not to love the irrepressible protagonist. Betsy is a deep thinker and a writer, but she’s an incurable optimist as well; she has, at many points in my life, lifted me out of the blues and into a sunnier frame of mind.
As I write, Betsy-Tacy fans everywhere have a new reason to be happy: the complete series is now back in print. Last fall, Harper Perennial reissued attractive double volumes of the six high-school-and-beyond stories, complete with the original drawings. (I guess it’s time to replace my battered library copies.) As I wandered around our local Borders store a few months back, I came upon the new edition of Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself on the display shelf – a crisp new paperback, showing Betsy and her friend Tacy dancing hand-in-hand on their way to high school. And as I looked at it, I actually felt envious of all of those who would get to pick up the book, open the cover, and enter, for that magical first time, the cozy, perennially youthful world of Deep Valley. When it comes to fiction, there really is no happier place to be.
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Copyright 2010 Ginny Moyer