Forget Alcott, Maud Lovelace is Queen of the Girls

April 14, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,sun staff

Betsy-Tacy Books: Insightful, accessible, progressive work outshines Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery. Three years ago, I discovered two rare children's books by Maud Hart Lovelace at the Enoch Pratt sale. In tip-top condition, these books can fetch upwards of $100; the Pratt wanted $2 each. I pounced quickly, but couldn't rejoice at my singular good fortune, indicative as it was of a literary injustice. Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series has never attained the classic status it deserves, which is why the Pratt felt free to sell "Winona's Ponycart" and "Emily of Deep Valley" in the first place.

I place Lovelace's books alongside "Little Women," "Anne of Green Gables" and Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series. No - that's inadequate. Lovelace's work is superior to that of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, equal to Wilder's. Let other women cry over Beth's death scene, let the Japanese flock to Prince Edward Island in search of all things Anne. My heart belongs to Deep Valley, Minn., and the Big Hill, where Betsy and Tacy picnic when the weather turns fair.

To its credit, HarperTrophy has just re-issued "Betsy and the Great World," and "Betsy's Wedding," the series' last two installments. Written at mid-century by Lovelace, the 10 books follow Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly from first meeting through their marriages. They are enchanting books with hundreds of hard-core fans - including Anna Quindlen, who has said she annually re-reads only three writers: Austen, Dickens and Lovelace.

The books' charms are simple and accessible for readers of any age: A strong, progressive heroine, a modern prose style, timeless stories. Parents and children interested in a respite from today's determinedly relevant books will find a refuge in Deep Valley.

Lovelace (1892-1980), had written several novels when she began, at daughter Merian's urging, the autobiographical Betsy-Tacy series in 1940. She apparently had a keen memory not only for the day-to-day details of her life, but for her feelings at any given age. The adult narrative voice is notably absent in the Betsy-Tacy books. When Betsy makes mistakes - and she makes plenty - she divines the lessons on her own.

At the end of "Betsy was a Junior," an account of her most frivolous year, Betsy ponders her "aft agley" plans.

"All those resolutions she had made on Babcock's Bay! How they had been smashed to smithereens! She wondered whether life consisted of making resolutions and breaking them, or climbing up and slipping down.

"... But all of [her friends] were growing up, Betsy thought intensely. They would never be quite so silly again. The foolish crazy things they had done this year they would do less frequently until they didn't do them at all.

" 'We're growing up,' Betsy said aloud. She wasn't even sure she liked it. But it happened, and then it was irrevocable. There was nothing you could do about it except try to see that you grew up into the kind of human being you wanted to be."

True, Betsy's loving parents are there to support her in every sense of the word. But this may be her greatest obstacle in obtaining classic status: Betsy is neither poor nor unloved. It is a disturbingly common theme in many children's books that either state bestows virtue, while the combination of material comfort and paternal love apparently debauches.

The Ray household is unabashedly middle-class, with money enough for nice clothes, a servant girl, college educations, and European tours. Betsy's family and friends also think the world of her, encouraging her ambitions as a writer, atypical for a girl at the turn of the century. When her father jokingly suggests Betsy might not be Shakespeare, sister Julia replies: "Who knows? Maybe this generation is going to produce another Shakespeare, and maybe it's Betsy."

The Betsy-Tacy books offer a reader the same safe haven the Rays create for their daughters. But they are never candy-coated. In "Betsy-Tacy Go Over the Big Hill," the two friends, now inseparable with a third girl named Tib, confront the racism generated by the presence of a Syrian community in their town. In "Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown," Betsy's mother is reunited with her black sheep brother. When Betsy goes abroad as a young woman ("Betsy and the Great World"), she sees a continent on the verge of war.

In the very first book, "Betsy-Tacy," Tacy's baby sister dies. After the funeral, 5-year-old Betsy goes to see her friend, sensing she must comfort her, but unsure how.

"After a while, Tacy said, 'It smelled like Easter in the church. Bee looked awful pretty. She had candles all around her.'

" 'Did she?' asked Betsy.

" 'But my mamma felt awful bad,' said Tacy.

"Betsy said nothing.

" 'Of course,' said Tacy, 'you know that Bee has only gone to Heaven.'

" 'Oh, of course,' said Betsy.

"But Tacy's lip was shaking. That made Betsy feel queer. So she said quickly, 'Heaven's awful nice.' "

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