Disclosures: I purchased these books for my personal library. *This review includes purchasing links that go through my Amazon Associates account, which pays me a small percentage for purchases based on referrals through those links.
Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe
both by Maud Hart Lovelace
Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2009), Paperback (ISBN 0061794694 / 9780061794698) (ISBN 0061794724 / 9780061794728)
Youth fiction, 704 pages/640 pages (each book is 1 volume containing 2 novels)
Comments: I’m incapable of doing one of my ordinary review posts about the Betsy-Tacy books. For one thing, they’re the first re-reads I’ve talked about in nearly three years of book blogging, although this wasn’t the first time I’ve re-read them, so I really can’t approach them with fresh or objective eyes. It’s been at least thirty years since I last read them, though, and now that the four high-school novels and two “grown-up” Betsy books are back in print, I was very excited to have the chance to revisit them…and, of course, to see if the magic was still there.
Returning to Deep Valley, Minnesota, and Betsy Ray’s high-school years after so many years away was quite enlightening for me. For one thing, I was struck by how much I still remembered about the books – not just major plotlines and characters, but oddball, episodic details about what happened in each of them – and reading the novels already knowing that “oh, and after this is when Betsy does such-and-such” didn’t take anything away from the experience.
It occurred to me that when I originally read Maud Hart Lovelace’s novels, I was aware that they were set in the past, but now Betsy and Tacy’s high-school years of 1906 to 1910 are literally a century ago. Realizing all the changes in the world just since my own high-school years ended in 1982, and adding those on top of the preceding 80 years, turn-of-the-20th-century Deep Valley seems like another world entirely – and in many ways, it was. But coming back to the stories now, with the perspective of having lived a few more years, it also occurred to me that in many respects, they’re both modern and timeless.
Other things I discovered in getting back together with Betsy:
- She’s responsible for my affection for fiction series that follow characters chronologically (from Betsy Ray to Harry Potter? Who knew?)
- She shaped my hopes and expectations for my own high-school years, 70 years later – it’s not her fault mine didn’t go the same way and I never had a Crowd
- She was a genuine “popular” girl, in a time when that was based on one’s personality and on being friendly and likable (and that probably explains, at least in part, why high school was different for me)
- Vera Neville’s illustrations in the high-school books were a major influence on my style of drawing during middle and high school (in those days, I was constantly sketching as well as reading, and thought of myself as an artist rather than as a writer).
The quality of writing doesn’t tend to stand out for me as much when I read youth fiction, unless it’s poor quality – and Lovelace’s books are not of poor quality. I’m better equipped to consider that now than I was when I originally read the Betsy-Tacy books, though, and I did notice the writing more this time – a few minor quirks and peculiarities jumped out at me at times, most arising from the fact that these books were written in the 1940s about the early 1900s. The stories are well-crafted and the characters are vivid. It’s enjoyable seeing Betsy gain self-awareness and confidence over the course of her four years at Deep Valley High School, trying to learn from the setbacks and having lots of fun when things are going well. There’s depth to these stories that escaped me the first several times I read these books, and I can appreciate that much more coming to them as an adult (I may be older than Betsy’s parents by now, come to think of it!).
I hope girls today – middle- and high-school girls in particular – are able to appreciate Betsy Ray; I’d like to think at least some of them can. I hope women who never met Betsy while they were young take these new editions as the opportunity to get to know her. And for women like me, who did have the joy of growing up with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, I have to say that it’s wonderful being reunited with such old and well-loved friends.
(I’m currently reading the last reissue, the post-high-school Betsy and the Great World/Betsy’s Wedding, and will give that volume a post of its own once I’m done.)