Book talk: Betsy Ray grows up and leaves Deep Valley

Disclosures: I purchased this book 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 and the great World by Maud Hart Lovelace
Betsy and the Great World/Betsy’s Wedding
Maud Hart Lovelace
Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2009), Paperback (reissue) (ISBN 0061795135 / 9780061795138)
Fiction/youth fiction, 688 pages

Book description: This brand-new edition of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved works brings together the final two books of the Betsy-Tacy series, Betsy and the Great World and Betsy’s Wedding, along with a foreword by New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen.
Betsy and the Great World: Betsy Ray is twenty-one and on the adventure of a lifetime: a solo tour of Europe! There’s even a handsome Italian, Marco, who’s going overboard for her—if only she could stop thinking about her ex-sweetheart Joe Willard.

Betsy’s Wedding: When Betsy’s boat docks in New York, Joe is waiting there . . . with a ring! But she’s going to learn that marriage isn’t all candlelight, roses, and kisses. There’s also cooking, ironing, cleaning, and budgeting— and will she be able to find time to forge a writing career?

Comments: After returning to Deep Valley, Minnesota, for Betsy Ray’s high-school years, I met up with her once again for a trip to Europe and the first couple of years of her married life back in Minneapolis. The final book in the series, Betsy’s Wedding, is probably the Betsy-Tacy novel I’ve read the fewest times; for some reason, I recall it being harder to find at the library than the others. I’ve read Betsy and the Great World several times before, though, and as I found when I read the high-school stories again, a lot of it has remained with me.

When I took my first trip on a cruise ship in the mid-1990’s, I remembered that my introduction to shipboard life came with Betsy. When she and her parents agreed that it might be best for her to quit college, they discussed the idea that travel could be at least as educational for a would-be writer; perhaps the money would be better spent on a trip to Europe than on another year’s tuition. Back in 1913, of course, travel by ship really was the only means of getting from the U.S. to Europe; these days, it’s a vacation more than transportation. But many of the conventions and traditions of shipboard life haven’t changed all that much, and Betsy’s trip – although somewhat more dramatic, and definitely more romantic, than my own – kept popping into my mind during that week on the Norway. Once she arrived in Europe, she didn’t really tour it; instead, she lived in a few cities – Munich, Venice, and London – for a few months each, with shorter visits to others. That’s always seemed like a fine idea to me, even though most of us probably couldn’t pull it off these days.

Betsy’s travels in the “Great World” are to be cut short by the outbreak of what was then called the “Great War,” but what summons her home is one of the best personal ads ever:

“Betsy: The Great War is on but I hope ours is over. Please come home. Joe.”

While Betsy and Joe’s post-high-school romance hit rocky water after he transferred from the University of Minnesota to Harvard, they haven’t really let each other go. When Betsy declines repeated proposals from a young architect she gets to know in Venice, she realizes that it’s because of her unresolved feelings for Joe, and writes him a long-delayed letter before she leaves for London. She doesn’t give him a forwarding address, but the London Times carries a personals column on its front page, and Joe finds a way to reach her.

Betsy’s Wedding
picks up just a few weeks after Betsy and the Great World ends, as Betsy sails back to the U.S.A. and finds Joe there to meet her. The wedding itself occupies only a few chapters – it happens shortly after Betsy’s return, and it’s a cozy event at her parents’ home in Minneapolis (the family hasn’t lived in Deep Valley for several years). Most of the novel concerns Betsy’s adjustments to married life over the first couple of years, coming to an end in 1917, as the US gets into the Great War and Joe prepares to enter the army along with the husbands of Betsy’s friends.

I remembered the fewest details about Betsy’s Wedding, and although part of that’s because I haven’t read it as many times as some of the other books, I wonder if another part of it has to do with its subject being less meaningful to me when I was younger. Having been a newlywed (twice) myself, I definitely brought a different perspective to this novel this time around, and I was impressed by how much I really liked it. Granted, there were aspects of it that were appropriate to the time period but are a bit grating now, chiefly Betsy and Tacy’s anxiety about getting Tib “married off” before she reaches her mid-twenties. (Tacy observes that “If girls don’t marry young, they tend to get fussy”…as if that’s a bad thing.) It was fully expected that the husbands would go out to earn money for the household, and most married women didn’t hold jobs outside the home; but then again, keeping up a home was a lot more work in those days. However, writing was (and still is) a career that can be pursued from home, and I was pleasantly struck by the fact that Joe and Betsy considered both of their writing equally important. Since this book was written for younger readers, the picture it paints of the early years of marriage is mostly pretty, but it’s also strikingly imperfect at times, and for the most part it’s true to life.

While these last two “grown-up” Betsy-Tacy books may be less universal in their themes than the high-school ones, they also have the feeling of being both modern and timeless, with depth that escaped me the first several times I read them, but which I can appreciate that much more coming back to them as an adult. However, while revisiting these books has had its particular pleasures, I’d certainly encourage getting to know them for the first time as well, no matter how long ago your own teens and early twenties were!

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  1. With a good series, a reader is able to see a character grow with each book. When a series spans childhood into adulthood, I imagine you get an even more impressive view of that growth and change. I bet it's very rewarding, especially in a series like this.

    I am glad you had such a good time re-visiting these books, Florinda. It does sound like a series well worth reading.

  2. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I'm glad I enjoyed re-reading them so much too. I was a bit afraid I might find them childish or less appealing now – it was nice to be wrong about that :-).

    Following a character over the years from childhood to adulthood may be a more obvious way to show growth, but I agree that it can be nice to see characters develop and change over time in a series – as long as the changes are in character.

  3. I'm compiling a list of Twitter users who are participating in Bloggiesta! I can't find your twitter button on your blog (if you have one) – if you do have Twitter and would like to be on this list, please email me at missremmers @ gmail (dot) com. Thanks!

  4. I can't wait to read these. I left off with Betsy in her first or second year of high school, so I have a ways to go. I put off reading them for awhile because I didn't want to be done with them so quickly. I want to savor the Betsy books. LOL

    Diary of an Eccentric

  5. These sound charming. Of course I'd have to start at the beginning of the series, I just couldn't pick it up at the end. I seem to remember a movie called Betsy's Wedding…must be based on the book?

  6. Miss Remmers – I've e-mailed you.

    Anna – I totally understand wanting to take your time with these books, and since they don't tend to have cliffhangers, it's easier to space them out a bit. I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on the later books!

    Kathleen – I remember that movie too, but I think it's just a coincidental title and has nothing to do with this book.

    You could go back to the very beginning of the series, when Betsy and Tacy are small children, or come in when they start high school; I think they're both valid entry points to the series, but I agree that you can't just pick it up at the end :-).