Betsy and the Great World is the ninth book in Maud Hart Lovelace's ten volume Betsy-Tacy series. It begins in January 1914 with 21-year-old Betsy Ray starting up the gangplank to the S.S. Columbic, then docked in Boston harbor but shortly bound for Europe. Two and a half years have passed since the end of the preceding book, Betsy and Joe, and much has changed. Most startling on first reading for fans of the series is finding Betsy embarking on this adventure alone. Best friend Tacy is conspicuously absent, as are Tib and Carney and the rest of Betsy's Deep Valley Crowd. And the devoted Ray family⎯parents Bob and Jule, and sisters Julia and Margaret⎯is nowhere in evidence.
But we soon learn that these characters are as supportive of Betsy as ever, albeit now from a distance. Indeed, the trip to Europe was her father's idea. He could see that Betsy had gotten off on the wrong foot at college, that she hadn't been happy there, and concluded that perhaps a different sort of education would serve her better. Initially he suggested the sort of guided tour that her older sister had taken a few years previously, but Betsy persuaded him otherwise:
"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."
And this is just what Betsy does, settling in for a time in Munich, then Venice, then Paris, and finally London (where the start of WWI ultimately cuts her travels short), meeting new people, making the most of every experience, and collecting story material all the while.
Fans of the earlier books can't help but miss Tacy and the Crowd and the Ray family. After all, the fun and the warmth of these friendships and this family is a major part of the appeal of the Betsy-Tacy series as a whole. But at the same time, it's exhilarating to witness Betsy becoming increasingly independent and ever more confident in her abilities as a writer. Betsy's journey in this book, both literal and emotional, was a great source of inspiration to me as a young reader and remains so still. As a world traveler, an independent woman, and a writer dedicated to her craft, Betsy was and is a heroine to emulate. This is why Betsy and the Great World is my favourite installment in the Betsy-Tacy series. And it doesn't hurt that it has one of the most satisfying endings that I've encountered in any book. I cry every time.
I'm not alone in taking inspiration from Betsy's travels. I canvassed the membership of Maud-L on this point and learned that a number of my friends and fellow Betsy-Tacy fans had been emboldened by Betsy to embark on similar adventures, some following directly in Betsy's footsteps, others traveling to destinations of their own but feeling a kinship with Betsy while doing so, and even adopting Betsyish turns of phrase in describing their adventures to loved ones back home. Here are some of the travel tales they generously shared with me:
Sallie K.: "My first trip to Europe in 1967 was greatly influenced by Betsy's trip in 1914. I wanted to go by ship, and there were still passenger ships plying the Atlantic Ocean in 1967, so I booked passage on the Queen Mary (yep, the same one that now resides in Long Beach CA). Before I left for New York City, my sister who had introduced me to the Betsy Tacy book series, gave me a package that included different presents to be opened each day of my voyage to Southampton England. The first was a small, leather-bound journal entitled "My Trip" - almost like Betsy's from Julia and Paige - and in which I wrote all during my stay in Great Britain. I didn't do as much traveling that first trip as Betsy did, but spent my whole 6 months in Great Britain exploring it from the tip of Cornwall to the top of John O'Groats in Scotland. On a later trip, also by ship, I visited Munich and Oberammergau in memory of Maud Hart Lovelace and her fictional character, Betsy Ray."
Wendy reports having visited all of the Betsy and the Great World sites in Munich, most of them in Venice, and some in London, and she singles out as highlights "seeing Marco's choir stalls at San Giorgio Maggiore and going to Sonneberg." Of the latter she writes: "Even in 1999, I was delighted to find that solo lady tourists in Sonneberg were so rare that people would pop their heads out of their houses to stare at me as I walked by."
Margaret: "Somehow, in reading all the Betsy-Tacy books, I had missed out on Betsy and The Great World. When I finally read it, it immediately became one of my favorites in the series, and I have probably reread it the most. I like to travel, and I have been to Paris more than once. One of my favorite memories of the city is the time a friend of mine and I were just wandering around the streets, shopping and looking at things. We turned a corner and unexpectedly there it was-- onze rue Scribe, the AMEX office. 'That's where Betsy went!' I said excitedly to my friend, who had no idea what I was talking about."
Jen: "I sent the following e-mail to my beloved husband after my day in Athens, pretending to be Betsy in the Great World: 'Our deck is full of drying underpants. Don't ask. Mom got us kicked out of our room this morning. Don't ask. At an outdoor cafe, a handsome Greek man put his hand in my hair and stroked my head. Ask all you want, I won't tell.' :) Travel is SO broadening!"
Ruth: "I took my very first cruise this summer (I'm almost 58) to Alaska. It was wonderful because I was partially raised there and was going back more or less. Also got to see my uncle. But my Betsy experience was sitting out on the deck chair on my balcony on the ship in the cold air, with a woolen deck blanket over me! (It took me a day to figure out that the nice 'afghans' on the couch were actually deck blankets!) And they were much appreciated! So I sat there and felt like Betsy on the Columbic and thought how wonderful it was to be there!"
Susann: "What I most love about Betsy and the Great World is that we get to see Betsy traveling ALONE. She makes friends and has companions for part of her journey but, really, Betsy is on her own, literally and metaphorically navigating her own course. Much as I enjoy traveling with friends and family, I also love to set out by myself. You see things differently when you're on your own. Betsy's solo trip to Sonneberg reminds me of my trip to Salzburg, when I was a 19-year-old student spending a semester in London. Just as Betsy indulged her inner child to visit the 'doll center of the world,' I knew that I couldn't leave Europe without paying homage to The Sound of Music. Folks thought I was a little nuts to head all the way to Austria, just for a Julie Andrews movie. But I was so excited to set off on my 'crazy expedition,' follow my heart's desire, and see one more corner of the Great World."
It's irresistible, is it not, a book that makes you want to travel the world?
(Thanks to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in the Betsy-Tacy blog tour.)