Get the Hammock Ready

Classic summer reading comes to life in your own back yard

Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace

The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace are a graceful, whimsical series about best friends Betsy, Tacy, and Tib growing up in turn-of-the-century Deep Valley, Minnesota. Lovelace strikes the harmony and calls up the civility we seek today for ourselves and our kids. She tells of supportive families, strong friendships (especially among girls), whimsy, respect, etiquette, and wide-eyed love of life.

The Betsy-Tacy books, based on the author's childhood in Mankato, were first published in the 1940s. HarperCollins is about to relaunch the full series to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the first volume. While you wait for crisp new copies, you'll find most of the books in well-stocked bookstores and libraries. After just a few chapters with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, you'll be ready for the breezy, scenic drive to Mankato, where the national Betsy-Tacy Society welcomes visitors to the real-life Tacy's house and 53 other sites on the "Betsy-Tacy Places in Mankato" walking tour.

It all starts like this: "It was difficult, later, to think of a time when Betsy and Tacy had not been friends. Hill Street came to regard them almost as one person. Betsy's brown braids went with Tacy's red curls, Betsy's plump legs with Tacy's spindly ones, to school and from, up hill and down, on errands and in play. So that when Tacy had the mumps and Betsy was obliged to make her journeys alone, saucy boys teased her: 'Where's the cheese, apple pie?' 'Where's your mush, milk?' As though she didn't feel lonesome enough already! And Hill Street knew when Sunday came, even without listening to the rolling bells, for Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly (whose parents attended different churches), set off down Hill Street separately, looking uncomfortable and strange" (Betsy-Tacy, chapter one).

Betsy-Tacy and the next twelve volumes (ten in the original series, and three companion books) follow Betsy, Tacy, and Tib from kindergarten through womanhood--from barefoot, grassy picnics and dress-up games to college, careers, marriage, and travel abroad. The reading level keeps pace with the characters, starting at age five to seven (although preschoolers too will enjoy the first book's simple sentences and imaginative plots), plateauing for four volumes at the twelve-to-seventeen level, and targeting teens to adults for the last four books about the friends' life choices.

For all their old-fashioned charm, the books pack enough tribulation to give turn-of-the-millennium girls timely touchstones. Deep Valley friends and families cope with competition and envy; serious illnesses of the day; farewells to dear friends; and the ethics of friendships and romance.

In the later volumes Betsy and friends search their souls--to arrive at livelihoods that suit their talents and make a difference in their worlds. In Emily of Deep Valley (age level fourteen to adult), Betsy's friend and would-be social activist Emily envies her friends away at college while she stays in Deep Valley to care for her grandfather. She networks her way into the community and eventually starts a boys' club to help bridge the cultural divide between Deep Valley's Syrian immigrants and the non-Syrian population.

Emily gets self-actualization and a good dose of "no place like home," plus there's a new hairstyle and a date-dance to tug at our girlier sides. Right now, Emily of Deep Valley is out of print. It will be included in the upcoming release of the full Betsy-Tacy series.

In Betsy in Spite of Herself (age level twelve to seventeen), Betsy (Lovelace's autobiographical character) takes on a new persona in order to--guess what--impress the new boy in Deep Valley. It works. But faking it is stressful, and Betsy eventually opts to be true to herself. That includes her commitment to writing, one of the biggest factors keeping her from plunging head-first into romance. Betsy-Tacy won't knock Hues or New Moon or other contemporary pro-girl literature off your daughter's bookshelf, but it can certainly round out a girl's repertoire to read about women of principle who wear stockings and leave calling cards.

Synopses of all thirteen books can be found at www.geocities.com/Paris/Lights/4859. This fan's site, titled "The Betsy-Tacy Home Page" (subtitled "I thought I was the only one!") offers a Lovelace bio, calendar of national and local events, trivia, photos, a link to the Mankato-based Betsy-Tacy Society home page (www.betsy-tacysociety.org), and an Amazon.com-associate bookstore. (Note: before you buy from big, bad Amazon, try patronizing a local bookstore like the one in You've Got Mail, where Meg Ryan mentions Betsy, Tacy, and Tib by name!).

Members of the Betsy-Tacy Society are quick to mention the You've Got Mail cameo and other celebrity endorsements (like Anna Quindlen's membership in the society and her fond mention of the series in How Reading Changed My Life, and the PBS's Hometime show's current interest in helping to restore Tacy's house); they'll gladly open the house on request for tours, special events, and book shopping. Costumes from Betsy's era and others hang on a front-room rack ready for scout and school groups to play as freely as Betsy and Tacy themselves. Framed pictures of family members in the home circa 1920, photo albums of Lovelace and friends, and a guest book with hundreds of touching entries from fans nationwide make the modest home seem grand.

Lots of books can delight; lots inspire; a precious few accomplish that with the added gift of a visible, touchable place. Betsy and Tacy, their stories, and their era really do come to life inside the house. It's worth the drive, and worth the read.

For information on the Betsy-Tacy Society or to book your walking tour, contact the Betsy-Tacy Society at 415 Cherry Street, Mankato, MN 56001, or Lona Falenczykowski at (507) 345-8103.

Ann Rosenquist Fee reviews books, magazines, and other print media for Minnesota Parent.

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