Oh, heavens!

At the Salvation Army in Astoria a few weeks ago, while browsing the shelves of books, I came across Heaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace. And I nearly dropped the other three books I was carrying; I snatched the lovely old copy (from 1945) greedily, like my 7-year-old self, thrilled at the idea of getting reacquainted with Betsy and Tacy (and don't forget Tib, though she figured only as a pen pal at this point in the series).

For those of you who didn't grow up reading the Betsy-Tacy books, a bit about the author: Maud Hart Lovelace was born in 1892 in Minnesota, and she spent her formative years there. From the jacket copy:

From 1906 to 1910 Maud Hart went to high school in Mankato, Minnesota, and had, she says, a very good time, which she recorded in four diaries, one for each high school year. The diarist went on to the University of Minnesota, traveled a bit, wrote a few stories, and married Delos W. Lovelace, then deep in the First World War. Mrs. Lovelace too wrote some historical novels, including the popular Early Candlelight. Then the Lovelaces came east, had a daughter named Merian, and settled down in Garden City, Long Island, where Mrs. Lovelace began to write the Betsy-Tacy stories, and Mr. Lovelace became a newspaperman.

The books I remember best were about Betsy, Tacy, and Tib in grade school; Heaven to Betsy regales the reader with stories from their freshman year of high school, modeled on the turn-of-the-century Minnesota small town Maud herself recalled so fondly.

I was nervous that upon rereading the stories would not hold up -- that, rather than giddily enjoying the characters I had grown up loving, I would be dismayed at provincialism or outdated views of gender, etc., etc. But I should have had more faith; the book was refreshing and realistic and quite a pleasure. A few of the more winning moments:

  • In Chapter 11, "Sunday Night Lunch," Lovelace describes how Mr. Ray, Betsy's father, commandeered the kitchen and made grand meals for his daughters and their friends. Then something very strange is described: "First he put the coffee on. He made it with egg, crushing shell and all into the pot, mixing it with plenty of coffee and filling the pot with cold water. He put this to simmer and while it came to a boil, slowly filling the kitchen with delicious coffee fragrance, he made the sandwiches." Now, in Oregon, we pride ourselves on knowing how to make a cup. But egg, shell and all, in your coffee? Never seen it before. Have others? Is this normal? It is practically inevitable that one cool winter evening I will experiment and report back.
  • Since we're on the subject of food, let's talk about onion sandwiches. "If nothing else was available [Mr. Ray] made his sandwiches of onions. He used slices of mild Bermuda onions, sprinkled with vinegar and dusted with pepper and salt. About the use of pepper and salt Mr. Ray had very positive ideas. He used his condiment with the care and precision of a gourmet. Not too much! Not too little!" These were his most popular offering, which perhaps suggests that his Sunday lunches weren't worth all the raves. But I do like onions. Maybe Betty Crocker has nothing on Betsy and crew.
  • Everyone is drinking cocoa, all the time, and simple writing suffices. Instead of a long, tiresome conversation about small-town Minnesota football politics, there are a few lines of dialogue, then the following: "Everyone was indignant, and the cocoa tasted very good." Small outrages, quiet resolutions.
  • In Chapter 14, "Halloween," Betsy is thinking about a boy she likes, but she also begins to reflect on what she really wants out of life. "She had been almost appalled, when she started going around with Carney and Bonnie, to discover how fixed and definite their ideas of marriage were. They both had cedar hope chests and took pleasure in embroidering their initials on towels to lay away. Each one had picked out a silver pattern and they were planning to give each other spoons in these patterns for Christmases and birthdays. When Betsy and Tacy and Tib talked about their future they planned to be writers, dancers, circus acrobats."
  • In Chapter 23, "The Talk With Mr. Ray," Betsy and her sister Julia plan to approach their father to explain that they want to convert from Baptists to Episcopalians (gasp!). They're nervous, and when they tell him, he ribs them a little. Betsy replies, "Don't joke. Julia and I know that you'll feel terrible. In the first place it will be so embarrassing to you; ... [people will] criticize you, and we can't stand the thought of that." Instead of this becoming a big, dramatic scene, we get to see Mr. Ray respond to his daughters with a little common sense: "Let me set you right on one thing first of all ... we aren't going to decide this on the basis of what people will say. You might as well learn right now, you two, that the poorest guide you can have in life is what people will say." And then there's a lot of religion talk, which ends with Mr. Ray's thoughtful response: "The most important part of religion isn't in any church. It's down in your own heart. Religion is in your thoughts, and in the way you act from day to day, in the way you treat other people. It's honesty, and unselfishness, and kindness. Especially kindness."
  • Some of the most dramatic action revolves around Betsy winning an essay contest Rhetoricals with a rollicking tale from the Puget Sound. Ultimate young-writer moment of victory, and it's how she gets over a heartbreak -- resilience and fulfillment from what you do, not what boy likes you! Very cool.
  • "Puny" is used frequently -- not in a derogatory way, but as the ultimate compliment. ("Why, lovey! How puny you look! Aren't those McCloskeys the puniest folks?")
  • Moustache cups.

I fear, indeed, that this will be the fall of revisiting more of the tales of my good old friends -- or even branching out into Lovelace's other works, of historical fiction, of tertiary characters later in life. The Maud Hart Lovelace Society has tons of great information about the author and her work; reissued paperbacks have recently come out, and you can even get a related songbook, if you're so inclined. For the particularly passionate, consider a trek to Minnesota for the National Betsy-Tacy Convention in July 2012. (Thanks for the heads up, Kathleen!)

(The illustration above, from my used copy, is by Vera Neville.)