Archive for the ‘Maud Hart Lovelace’ Category

Betsy's WeddingBetsy’s Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace begins where Betsy and the Great World ended: it is September 1914 and Betsy is on a ship, coming back to America after having spent the last nine months touring Europe.  Waiting for her when she docks is Joe Willard, the boy she has loved since high school.  Their past quarrels are forgotten and, now assured on one another’s love, the two young people are only too eager to start their life together.  Less than a week later they are married and setting up house near Betsy’s family in Minneapolis.

The book covers the first few years of Betsy and Joe’s marriage, as Joe works and Betsy struggles to cook and keep house.  They have their family nearby and almost all of their friends have stayed in the area (Betsy has been reunited with her beloved “Crowd”, who she missed so much while in Europe) so most of the book is devoted to Joe and Betsy’s interactions with others.  This was my first introduction to Tacy, already married and, before the book is over, a mother of two, and to their other great friend, Tib, an outgoing German-American blonde whose speech is unnaturally peppered with German exclamations.  I suddenly felt very thankful that neither of them had featured in Betsy and the Great World.

After reading two other Maud Hart Lovelace books, I should have known not to expect any emotional depth but, even so, I was disappointed by how shallow this book was.  Betsy is full of resolutions when she gets married and, as she adjusts to married life, there are some fleeting reflections as she learns to adapt to life with Joe but, for the most part, any serious issue is ignored.  Betsy mentions a few times the desire for a child but, when none appears, no comment is made as to her disappointment.  Her writing career, which had been so important to her in previous books, is barely mentioned, except for when she turns down a writing job with the excuse “I already have a job…And it’s important, and very hard. It’s learning how to keep house.”  Instead of emotional development, we get an action-filled account of what is going on with Betsy’s Crowd.  Honestly, the two main challenges Betsy faces in this book are 1) learning how to cook (thank goodness she married a husband who knows how) and 2) finding a husband for her friend Tib, whose lack of interest in marriage shocks poor Betsy and Tacy:

“She isn’t even thinking about getting married!” Betsy cried.  “She goes out all the time but she doesn’t give a snap for the men.”

“When girls don’t marry young,” Tacy said profoundly, “they get fussier all the time.”

“That’s right.  You know the old saying about a girl going through the forest and throwing away all the straight sticks only to pick up a crooked one in the end.” Betsy looked wise as befitted an old married woman.

“There’s a lot of truth in that.”

“And Tib will soon be earning so much money that she won’t meet many men who earn as much money as she does.”

“That would be bad.”

“And then she’ll start driving around in her car, and getting more and more independent, and she won’t marry at all, maybe!  And then what will she do when she’s old?”

Lovelace is partially tongue-in-cheek here, but only partially.  There are dozens of things that mark this book as being of its time (1955) but none more than this.  If I had read this passage as an eight or nine year old, I would have thrown the book down in disgust and returned to the non-Stepford –esque heroines in my books from forty or fifty years earlier.

Having now read this, I think I can safely put my interest in the series to rest.  I have heard from a number of enthusiastic Betsy-Tacy fans since I started sampling Lovelace’s books but I am afraid I will never be able to count myself among their ranks.  Still, it was interesting to read a few books from the series and I had much more patience for them now that I would have if I’d come to them as a child.  I can at least understand their simple, nostalgic appeal, even if I don’t feel it.

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Betsy and the Great WorldI only discovered Maud Hart Lovelace after I started blogging.  Her Minnesota-set Betsy-Tacy series of children’s books have insipid titles that would have earned my contempt if anyone had tried to press them on me when I was young (Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Heaven to Betsy, and Betsy Was a Junior) but she had so many fans in the book blogging world that I had to try her for myself.  I started with a non-Betsy-Tacy book (Emily of Deep Valley) and thought it was fine.  At the time, I remarked that I didn’t think, based on the brief glimpse of Betsy provided in Emily of Deep Valley, that I could face any of the books focused on her.  But then I found a copy of Betsy and the Great World for sale at the library for 50 cents and decided to take a chance.

After two years of university, Betsy Ray has had enough.  She convinces her parents that, as an aspiring writer, she is not getting a lot of value from her math and science classes.  They agree and instead offer up an education of a different sort: a year abroad, travelling in Europe.  (Note: this was not the offer my parents made to me whenever I complained about my university classes.  Tragically.)  Unsurprisingly, she is ecstatic and, in possession of a flashy wardrobe and lots of enthusiasm, she sets off for Europe.  It is January 1914, she is twenty-one years old, and the world seems full of possibilities.

The book follows Betsy through her shipboard adventures, her travels on the continent (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France), and her arrival in England – just in time for war to be declared.  Through it all, she does her best to make new friends and keep up her writing even as she struggles with homesickness and a longing for Joe, the boyfriend she had parted from before leaving and is now fearful of having lost forever.

The highlights of the book for me were the descriptions of the places Betsy visits.  Betsy herself was wildly uninteresting but I loved hearing about her walks through Munich, her wanderings around Venice, and her instant love affair with London.  The only part of Betsy’s journey I did not enjoy was her brief stay in Oberammergau, where the piety of the citizens, many of them actors in the village’s famous Passion Play, was taken far too seriously by the young American (and her creator).

Though I developed absolutely no interest in or attachment to Betsy over the course of the novel, I was impressed by Lovelace’s descriptions of Betsy’s mood changes and the frequent waves of homesickness that plagued her.  Lovelace has a disarmingly honest was of talking about unpleasant or negative emotions (which were also a feature of Emily of Deep Valley).

But there were things that outweighed the honesty and the enchanting travel details: so much of the story is focused on Betsy’s new friendships (both platonic and romantic) and the episodic and repetitive nature of these relationships felt lazy.  Yes, Betsy seems to be a young woman who makes friends (and conquests) easily but I longed for some more substantial development.  Her need to surround herself with a group of people, to form a clique (or, in her words, a Crowd) in each new place, saddened me.  By the end of the book, Betsy has seen many places and had many wonderful experiences but it is not clear how much she has actually learned, particularly about herself.

There is one feature I cannot decide if I should classify as a positive or a negative: Betsy’s garish wardrobe.  Maud Hart Lovelace describes her heroine’s costumes in loving detail and the vast majority of them are awful – laughably so.  Betsy has a particular fondness for a red-green hat, worn with a pale green dress and a scarlet jacket.  There is also a matronly-sounding maroon silk evening dress.  And she wonders how people know she is an American even before she speaks!  The illustrations don’t help either, making her look either ten years behind the fashions or forty years ahead of them.

Clearly, this was not an instant favourite with me, though there is something intriguing about Lovelace’s writing, though it is very uneven.  I am even a little bit tempted to read the final Betsy-Tacy book, Betsy’s Wedding.  But while I can somewhat stomach grown-up Betsy, the idea of reading about her childhood escapades sends a shiver up my spine.  No.  Just…no.  I cannot face that.

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Having now read Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace, I can understand why it is such a beloved comfort read for many.  It is a story simply told and full of heart, a nostalgic, wholesome tale of an intelligent young woman’s struggles to build a rich, engaging life.  Emily Webster is one of the cleverest young women in Deep Valley but after graduation, when all her friends are heading off to university, Emily chooses to stay behind to care for the grandfather who has raised her since her parents’ death.  Without her childhood friends or the high school classes that brought her so much joy, Emily struggles.  She finds herself feeling isolated and depressed and, in the manner of all good children’s heroines, resolves to do something about that, to “muster her wits” as she calls it and create an exciting, enriching life.

The portion of the novel dealing with Emily’s difficulty in finding her place in Deep Valley as an adult, not a child, is fascinating.  A good section of the book is devoted to this and to her ensuing depression, happily for the reader if not Emily since this forms the most compelling, original portion of the novel.  Emily is conscious that she needs to change to stop her depression from worsening, but, for a long time, she struggles.  Lovelace has a rather perfect description of her feelings at this time that feels very true to the kind of oppression one feels when faced with depression, knowing that something needs to be done but not knowing how to do it:

‘A mood like this has to be fought.  It’s like an enemy with a gun,’ she told herself.  But she couldn’t seem to find a gun with which to fight.

Emily is a character any life-long reader can easily identify with.  She is intelligent and excited to learn but longs for other people who share her enthusiasm.  She was never the most popular girl in school, but she had friends and her debate team members, people who respected and admired her.  She was part of the school community and adored it.  Now, with all her friends gone, she is left with her grandfather and her books.  But even books aren’t enough: she doesn’t just want to read mindlessly but to debate ideas with others:

She did bring home books from the library, in armloads, replenishing them every two or three days.  She read avidly, indiscriminately, using them as an antidote for the pain in her heart.  But they didn’t help much.  There was no one to talk them over with.  They were almost as useless as the newspapers.

Cheerfully, though perhaps a touch unrealistically, it doesn’t take long for Emily to ‘muster her wits’.  Even before Thanksgiving, having spent on a few months without her high school friends, she has enacted a course of self-improvement and socialisation.  She starts a reading group with local women, returns to the piano lessons she had loved before school commitments forced her to abandon them, begins learning to dance, and befriends both a slightly older group of local young people and the Deep Valley Syrian community.  She still longs for more education and the friends who are away but as she becomes more and more absorbed in the work she has set for herself, she develops a busy, rewarding life that she is fully engaged in.

Emily’s relationship with the Syrian community is quite interesting and the novel’s most unique feature.  Having become intrigued by sociology and the ideal of social work while she was in high school, Emily is remarkably free of prejudices and it doesn’t take long for her to befriend a number of Syrian families and hatch plans to improve their lot.  Her first friends are a pair of young boys, Kalil and Yusef.  Cheerful, eager and polite, they become welcome visitors at her house, bringing joy to both Emily and her grandfather.  Yet the local boys tease and bully them.  Emily begins her efforts by bringing Kalil and Yusef together with a pair of American boys, forming a boys’ club that helps bridge the cultural divide.  After visiting Kalil and Yusef’s homes and seeing how little English the mothers’ in the community speak, living more isolated lives than their children and husbands, she also begins giving language classes. And she joins others in the Deep Valley community to advocate for adult education classes for the Syrians to help them adapt to their lives in America.  In doing so, she becomes close to Jed Wakeman, a young, new teacher at the high school.

Oh, Jed.  What to say?  The book’s illustrations of him as a slimmed-hipped, bowtie-wearing, bright-eyed all-American did not help at all.  He looked very good and very perfect but completely uninteresting, which is pretty much how he comes across in the text.  Their idyllic courtship is very reasonable, very logical and very boring.  Jed is too perfect, Emily’s mirror image rather than foil – they agree on everything.  He’s blandly inoffensive and serves mostly to support Emily’s growing confidence.  These aren’t bad things but I never got a sense of Jed as a person, just as a platform of ideas that match Emily’s.  Seemingly every time he appears, he’s introduced with some sort of reference to his stature (he’s large.  We get it) rather than anything related to his character.  He never develops enough to feel like a real person.  But, then again, Emily, though relatable, is pretty bland herself so there is a certain logic to their pairing.

Lovelace has an irritating inclination to drift into sickening nostalgic and/or patriotic passages that would have completely destroyed this book for me when I was younger and less tolerant than I am now.  The story was written in 1950 but set in 1912 and full of oh-so-conscious and unnecessarily detailed allusions to the fashions of the day.  I like hearing about a crisp shirtwaist or stylish sailor suit as much as the next girl, but there is a limit and it was quickly reached.  I suppose there is an audience who appreciates the unabashed flag-waving but, aside from pointing out Deep Valley’s fervent patriotism, it served no purpose.  It was generally not gracefully incorporated into the story and felt clunky and intrusive.

I don’t think I could face the Besty-Tacy books that Lovelace is famous for (the glimpse of Betsy here was more than enough for me) but I did quite enjoy this.  It’s not high-quality children’s literature but it is a very light, entertaining, wholesome story with fascinating central issues, Lovelace’s intelligent treatment of which should be enough to keep any adult reader engaged.  If the characters had been more complex and realistic, I’m sure I would have come away raving about it.  As is, it’s a book I’m now glad to say I own and which I’ll be happy to return to when I’m looking for an undemanding but thoughtful read.

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