Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Scattered Post on a Scattered Day

Nowhere on my voluminous "To Do" list was there an imperative to re-read Betsy and the Great World, my favourite instalment in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series. But I spent part of today doing just that. Nothing calms me in times of stress as effectively as revisiting a book that is essentially an old friend. Today, Betsy and the Great World did the trick.

For those of you not initiated into the cult of Betsy-Tacy, I offer up an excerpt from the first chapter which nicely sets up the rest of the book. As far as background goes, this particular scene takes place in the summer of 1913, Julia is Betsy’s older sister, Margaret her younger sister, and Tacy her best friend.

     "Don’t think," Mr. Ray continued, "that Mamma and I haven’t seen which way the wind was blowing. You haven’t been happy, Betsy, and we’ve known it."
     Betsy didn’t speak.
     "You’re going to be a writer," he proceeded thoughtfully. "No doubt about that! You’ve been writing all your life. And you’ve worked harder this summer at that story you’re writing than you’ve worked for all your professors put together. What’s the name of it anyway?"
     "'Emma Middleton Cuts Cross Country,'" Betsy replied. "It's about a little dressmaker, like the one who made my Junior Ball dress. She gets disgusted with everything and walks out and makes a new start."
     "Sounds good," said Mr. Ray, nodding sagely, although he never read stories, except Betsy’s. "You certainly write like a whiz. Do you remember the letter Dr. Sanford wrote you about your story in the college magazine?"
     Betsy nodded, moist-eyed.
     "I was very proud of that letter," Mr. Ray said, which made her tears spill over for it seemed to her that she had given him very little reason to be proud of her lately. He put down his cigar.
     "You're going to be a writer," he repeated, "and you need more education. That’s plain. But college isn’t the only place to get an education. I have a 'snoggestion.'" That was what Mr. Ray always called a particularly good suggestion. "I've sounded Mamma out and she approves. How would you like a year abroad?"
     "But, Papa!" Betsy had thrown her arms around him, frankly crying now. "What a glo-glo-glorious snoggestion! I've always planned to go. But I never thought of you sending me. I thought I’d earn the money myself some day."
     "Oh, I don’t think it would cost so much more than a year at the U!" said Mr. Ray. "You'd have to go in a modest way, of course. But Julia had two trips abroad. You’re entitled to one, too. Maybe when Margaret goes, Mamma and I will go along."
     "Would I ... would I go to school over there?"
     "You don't seem to be getting what you need out of a school. But judging by our experience with Julia, you learn a lot just from traveling in Europe ... seeing the art galleries, learning the languages and all that stuff. You could go on a guided tour like Julia did."
     "No, Papa!" Betsy knelt beside him, her hands on his knee. "Guided tours are all right for some people, but not for a writer. I ought to stay in just two or three places. Really live in them, learn them. Then if I want to mention London, for example, in a story, I would know the names of the streets and how they run and the buildings and the atmosphere of the city. I could move a character around in London just as though it were Minneapolis. I don’t want to hurry from place to place with a party the way Julia did."
     Her father looked perplexed.
     "But it doesn’t seem safe, Betsy. You're only twenty-one. You know how much confidence Mamma and I have in you, but we wouldn't want you living in those big foreign cities all alone."
     "Maybe we could pick out cities where I know someone ... or you do, or Julia."
     "Maybe. I’ll talk it over with your mother."
     So Betsy dashed off to Tacy’s apartment and they talked, talked about the wonderful trip.
     "I’m just going to travel around like Paragot," Betsy said, referring to a character in William J. Locke’s novel, The Beloved Vagabond, a favourite with both of them.

And off she goes, setting forth from Boston on the S.S. Columbic in January 1914 and spending time in Munich, Venice, Paris, and London until the start of WWI cuts her travels short.

I’ve been meaning to read The Beloved Vagabond ever since I saw it referenced in Betsy and the Great World, but decades on I still haven’t gotten round to it. One book often leads me to another in my non-fiction reading; this is particularly true of literary biographies. But, though I often intend to, I can’t think of too many instances when I’ve taken up the book recommendations of fictional characters. Have you ever read a book simply because you read a reference to it in another book? Which ones?

I’m off to put a copy of The Beloved Vagabond on hold at the library. I’ll keep you posted as to how it measures up after a couple of decades of anticipation...

[Illustrations from Betsy and the Great World are by Vera Neville.]


sfp said...

I read Middlemarch because the main character in a Lorrie Moore novel had an imaginary best friend who yelled out of the car window for everyone to go home and read Middlemarch. :)

lucette said...

This excerpt makes me wish I owned some of the Betsy Tacy books so I could read away this rainy Sunday afternoon in their company. But we always got them from the library. Maybe it's time to buy my own.

Kate S. said...

Lucette, the Betsy-Tacy books are all back in print and available in affordable paperback editions. I'm not as keen on the contemporary covers as I was on the original hardbacks with cover illustrations by Lois Lenski and Vera Neville which is why I bought myself a nostalgia set on ebay. But the new paperbacks still have the original black and white Lenski and Neville illustrations inside, and I've been showering all my young friends with sets of the books for some time now both to share my love of the books and to do my bit to ensure that they stay in print!

Nancy said...

I've never read any of the Betsy Tacy books, but they sound wonderful. Must go on a hunt now.

Anonymous said...

In Noel Streatfield's "Tennis Shoes", 11 or 12-year-old Susan reads "Pride and Prejudice." So I decided that I had to read it, too. I didn't get past the first chapter. Five years later, though, I loved it.


bloglily said...

Oh Kate, Thank you so much for those excerpts. They made me want to cry, for some reason.

I've just come from the Hobgoblin's site, where he mentioned the Moffats, another series I loved as a child.

Lois Lenski's little books were some of my favorite books from the library when I was a child.

Thanks so much for this lift.

(And now, I'm off to ebay to look for my "nostalgia set.")

zia said...

Oh, I loved the Betsy-Tacy books; I even remember the cover illustrations you're talking about. And boy, did I sigh over Joe and his apple cores ...

LK said...

This takes me back! You know I'm a B-T fan. (I don't own any of the books, though -- have to get one..or two...or three! Thanks for the post.

Sam said...

When I was a teenager I was on a V.C. Andrews kick and of one her characters read Jane Eyre which made me want to read it, too

DesertIslandBookworm said...

I too, read BELOVED VAGABOND because it was a favorite of Betsy (Maud)--but it was quite a while ago, so don't recall much... There are probably quite alot of other titles I've read because they were mentioned in favorite fiction, books mentioned in works by Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott (just to start off with. It can be fun to read others mentioned by Maud--IVANHOE and Dumas's MUSKETEERS (which Joe read 4 times by the time he was fourteen)--keeping in mind why characters injoyed these classics. BTW, fans of Maud & Delos might look for new book due out September 2012, first vlume of reprint collections of their short stories including one I've "always" wanted to read EMMA MIDDLETON CUTS CROSS-COUNTRY (reason I found this post). ISBN 975-0-9850937-1-6 It may be relatively expensive coming from a small press--but much cheaper and convenient than tracking down original old magazines from 100 years or so ago!

DesertIslandBookworm said...

In case I made an error in ISBN listed in my earlier post, first volume of collected stories by Maud & Delos Lovelace will be published next month by Minnesota Heritage Publishing, website Since I have limited funds, I'm hoping a local library will get it--I live not that far from Claremont, California where the couple retired to live.
I wish I knew more about year Betsy (and Maud?) spent in California, staying with her grandmother (mother of her mother Stella Palmer Hart) recovering from illness after her freshman year at Universty of Minnesota. As that's where Betsy apparently wrote first stories she sold (including one to Los Angeles Times Magazine), maybe that will be mentioned in short story collection.