Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Book Review: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

Title: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

Author: Maud Hart Lovelace

Date: 1943

Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell

ISBN: none, but there's a new edition that has one: 978-0064400985

Length: 180 pages

Illustrations: drawings by Lois Lenski

Quote: “The horseless carriage…sounds crazy to me. If there isn’t a horse to say ‘whoa!’ to, how do you stop the thing?”

In the 1940s Maud Hart Lovelace drew on the happier memories of her youth to write a series of books about Betsy and Tacy and their friends, approximately one book for each year of the girls’ childhood and youth. This one is volume four. Each volume in the series is a real oldfashioned “family story” in which we learn about the social history of the early twentieth century, watch the girls develop their interests and talents, and see them do nice things for their families and friends.

In Go Downtown Betsy and Tacy have added one more close friend, Tib. (They will add more friends, while remaining true-blue buddies forever, as they go through high school.) Tacy is tall with red hair; Tib is short with blonde hair; Betsy is average-size with brown hair. The new girl at school, whom they want for a friend, is called Winona and has a darker complexion and more energetic temperament than they have. At this period Longfellow was admired, and some natural blondes were called Winona; no questions were asked. (This seems to have been the way things were in much of North America a hundred years ago: “Indians,” meaning Native Americans since at this period nobody on this continent actually came from India, were “savages” and enemies, but for that same reason, if people spoke English and lived in town, they were considered White. That's how the author of this post achieved Whiteness.)

At this period many North American Protestant churches had rules that banned theatre-going. Betsy’s mother has saved some costumes from the strictly amateur plays she and her siblings used to do at home; Betsy’s uncle has become a missing person because his parents didn’t want him to be a professional actor. Winona wins friends and influences people by having complimentary tickets to plays. The Poppys, a rich young couple who are new in town, get lots of attention by having a horseless carriage, but people like Betsy’s parents distrust the Poppys because both Mr. and Mrs. Poppy made their money in the theatre. This subtle little story about a nice girl bonding with a new school friend is also the story of her parents’ giving up their prejudice against theatre people.

It’s all “Minnesota Nice”—or even Pollyanna nice. Betsy and her friends lead charmed lives. Lovelace told the kind of stories my generation’s grandparents told, but she selectively told only the happier ones. It wasn’t that real grandparents didn’t tell people my age about their first ride in a motorcar, their first visit to the town’s brand-new library, or the model horse at the saddle shop. They did. It was just that…well…the epidemics that ravaged real North American towns at this period never touch Deep Valley.

Even into the 1970s real children expected to have each of the “childhood diseases” (measles, mumps, chickenpox, scarlet fever, sometimes whooping cough). At no point in any individual Betsy-Tacy story do I ever think, “These children ought to have the mumps,” but when I try to describe the series as a whole, it seems to need mentioning that none of the children in this series ever has a “childhood disease.” Nor do they have “bad days.” Nobody has ever molested any of the girls or beaten any of the boys. There are veterans to march in parades, but nobody’s father or brother was wounded or killed in the war. There are women who have one child, several children, no children, but no women who noticeably have more or fewer children than they want. As they go through puberty the boys and girls pair off in the most wholesome, age-appropriate way, with relatively little drama and no real heartaches. Even the misery of teen embarrassment troubles Betsy, Tacy, and friends only enough to be  funny. The horses don’t attract flies and the horseless carriage doesn’t emit fumes. When Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown you don’t know exactly how all of the characters will get what they want by the end of the book, but you never doubt that they all will.

I don’t remember thinking that the Betsy-Tacy books were less credible than the contemporary Little House books, as a child. I do remember thinking that, for reasons I was too young to analyze, I just liked the Little House books better.

I also remember that all the books in this series had illustrations. (Even after Betsy, Tacy, and friends come home from college and get married, their stories are told in as child-friendly a way as possible.) The illustrators changed when the girls went through puberty. Lois Lenski, who drew Betsy and Tacy as “tweens,” was a good author in her own right as well as a super-popular illustrator. Nevertheless I remember thinking that her distinctive style seemed all wrong for Betsy and Tacy. As an adult I can say, more analytically, that Lenski excelled at details of exotic costumes and artifacts but tended to draw people like flat wooden dolls…very cute dolls I might have wanted to collect, but not humans. I liked her illustrations for fairy tales and stories about exotic times and places where the focus was on the curious objects they used. I liked the stories about Betsy and Tacy as children better than the stories about their teens and early twenties, but I preferred the illustrations in the books where they were older.  

Well…that was one child reader’s opinion. You or the child in your life might feel differently. Buy the book and tell me what you think.

Obviously these aren't Fair Trade Books but at least reprints make them easy to find, so this web site can offer them on our usual terms: $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment. All nine books might not fit into one package that the post office would let us ship for $5, but they'd fit into two packages anyway, so if you want the complete series, send $55 (or $56 online)...and if we can ship them for $50 (or $51) we'll let you know.