Alexandra Lange | Essays

In Spite of Myself

Last month I finally removed my last box of stuff from my mother’s attic. Thirteen boxes had been moldering there since I graduated from college 15 years ago, packed with the contents of my college shelves (Plato, Breton, Venturi) and those of my childhood bedroom (Bronte, Montgomery, L’Engle). I had been waiting until I owned my own home and enough bookshelves to receive the bounty, to get them, though I never thought it would take me until age 36. So now the shelves under the windows in my brand-new bedroom hold the books I loved as a child and teen, boxed sets of C.S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, several Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New MoonRebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Secret Garden. And (and this is embarrassing) many well-read volumes in the Dragonriders of Pern series.

Most important, the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. These followed me from childhood to adolescence, as I grew up reading and re-reading about the friendship of brunette Betsy, red-haired Tacy and blonde Tib. I had a brunette best friend too, so I always identified with Tib, who was little and sensible and got to go off and live in the metropolis (Milwaukee). I must have checked most of them out of the library, because the two I own chronicle only Besty and Tacy’s first two years at Deep Valley (Minnesota) High School. But what years they are! Betsy goes boy-crazy. She gets to put her hair up. She becomes an Episcopalian. She loses the essay contest (twice). Each took me two nights to read and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but I also noticed all sorts of things that passed me right by when I was younger.

Most importantly, amidst all the worries about freckles and curled hair, ironed “waists” (it took me years to figure out what a shirtwaist was) and whether it was OK to rouge, there was the glimmer of a feminist message. As early as freshman year, Betsy and her sister Julia both dream of different creative careers and of getting out into the Big World. Betsy is surprised that two of her Crowd, Carney and Bonnie, are already embroidering linen towels for their hope chests and want nothing more than to stay in Deep Valley. Betsy keeps trying to be dramatic and mysterious, but artifice leads to fall after fall. She loses track of her own dreams in trying to be popular and always put-together and she regrets it. Meanwhile, the books make sure to tell us what she wears and how she does her hair almost every chapter, but that fascinated me then as now, partly out of a sense of the sheer discomfort of all those petticoats.

The other hidden message was one of class. The Rays are clearly upwardly mobile, moving from a small cottage on what sounds like the rural edge of town to a large house on High Street. Mr. Ray belongs to the lodge. In the new house, there is a bathroom with tub. Mrs. Ray gets to decorate. But the girls themselves rarely buy anything. Tacy is one of a large Irish family and there is much less talk of her clothes; Betsy observes from time to time that Tacy never seems jealous that Betsy gets to go on trips, etc. that are clearly out of her reach. Other friends, like the aforementioned Carney and Bonnie, live in bigger houses with great lawns and libraries. The first time Betsy goes to Carney’s house, it is clear she’s never been to a place with so many books. Her parents are educated, but the idea of owning literature is not in their DNA. It is actually rather remarkable how simply all of these class markers are put out there, but with no judgement from author or protagonist. Curiosity, not cattiness, rules this world.

Last but not least, there is Joe Willard, Betsy’s destined love. He has no family, lives in a rented room and works after school. Betsy keeps trying to befriend him, but is vanquished by his pride. She can’t see the differences between them because of money and family and he can’t explain. I can’t remember how they finally get together, but now I look at every used bookstore Betsy & Joe. Fans have jacked up the prices online. This fall, Harper Perennial is reissuing all of the high school books, with the original Gibson Girl-esque artwork and I have already added them to my wish list.

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