Review: Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace. Harper Perennial. First published in 1947. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

BWAJFace Value: I’m going to use this opportunity to rave about the new covers for the Betsy-Tacy series. These covers came out several years ago, and I love how they capture the essence of the original book yet still appeal to readers now. The covers feature some of the original Vera Neville illustrations for the series, which have a certain charm about them. To complete this stylish package, each of the new editions features a forward by a contemporary author who also loves Betsy & Tacy. Meg Cabot wrote the forward for the edition I read, and it was everything I could have hoped for. There’s something I find so charming when authors discuss what they admire about other authors.

Does it break the slate? For a book written in 1947, I was impressed that the female characters showed so much initiative and willingness to challenge authority. The primary lesson learned from Betsy Was a Junior is that Betsy Ray needs to buckle down and work hard in order to achieve her goals. Of course, she learns this because she flits around during junior year doing a bunch of other goofy stuff and doesn’t achieve all that she hoped for. That means we see Betsy doing some extremely foolish things throughout the book. But she learns from them! And that is ultimately what’s important. I don’t think Betsy can quite be a Slatebreaker because she does conform to many of the class and gender expectations of a small Midwestern town in the 1940s, but she’s certainly an admirable female character.

Who would we give it to? Minnesotans and Midwesterners! Betsy’s world is so clearly small-town-Midwest that readers living in that region will appreciate the quirky residents of Deep Valley. I would also give the Betsy-Tacy books to a reader who has finished all of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne Shirley books and is hungry for more historical fiction about smart, adventurous girls.

Review: As part of the reading Bingo challenge that I set for myself in 2013, I decided to re-read a Betsy-Tacy book. Just one. Although I would love to dive headfirst back into the Betsy-Tacy series, alas, my dance card is full. I have a pile of new releases that I want to get into, so I’m allowing myself just one nostalgic trip back to Deep Valley, Minnesota. And thus I faced my dilemma: which one do I pick?

I always loved the later Betsy-Tacy books because I admired the worldly adventures that Betsy and Tacy experienced as they grew up. Yes, they were great child characters, but I was much more intrigued by their adolescent and adult pursuits. I decided to re-read Betsy Was a Junior, a book set just on the cusp of Betsy’s adulthood. Betsy was a Junior chronicles Betsy’s most unsuccessful year – a year when she fails to achieve her goals, yet still manages to look positively toward the future. I’m having a year like that myself, so I thought that this book was the perfect fit for me right now.

The book starts with an idealistic Betsy paddling idly across a lake while on summer vacation. She is making a grand list of goals for her junior year.  They are lofty and in some cases unachievable, but that doesn’t stop Betsy Ray! She fully intends to have the best year of her life.

Naturally, junior year does not quite go as planned. Betsy’s sister Julia experiences some freshman year drama that throws the entire family into hysterics. Betsy’s plan to be going steady with Joe Willard seems to be inexplicably blocked by his attraction for another girl. What I love about these plots is that the problems they present are so trivial and ultimately completely unimportant in Betsy’s life, yet they take up a great deal of the narrative. Because teen girls obsess about things like that. It’s the developmental truth of adolescence: you will fixate on things that adults find meaningless.

Re-reading this Betsy-Tacy book brought a few less satisfying surprises. There’s a tinge of xenophobia throughout the book that I definitely did not pick up on as a child reader. Tib, who has moved back to Deepy Valley after several years living in Milwaukee, is occasionally mentioned to have a bit of an accent “from spending so much time around foreigners.” I had to laugh, because I don’t really think of Milwaukee as a hotbed of immigrants, but I guess at the time it was certainly a more internationally populated city than the fictional Deep Valley. Lovelace also casually mentions that Betsy presents the anti-immigration argument in a school debate, as if it’s no big deal and something that Betsy should be proud of. So…that’s awkward. These are just a few examples of the uncomfortable bigotry that was accepted as a part of small town life, and has lingered through the decades to continue to be a part of some Midwestern community cultures.

By the end of junior year, Betsy feels defeated because she has utterly failed at achieving most of her goals. But she’s Betsy Ray, so she finds a way to be optimistic about it. It was oddly therapeutic for me to read about Betsy’s defeats and eventual positive outcomes, because I need to work on the whole positive attitude thing in my own life. This is  what makes Betsy Ray a great girl character. So what if she didn’t win the essay contest? Who cares that she didn’t end up with the boy of her dreams? She still has plenty to be happy about.

Despite having a father who is clearly a head-of-the-household type and some fairly traditional female role models, Betsy manages to be independent. She’s not quite Anne Shirley, but she’s a suitable alternative and a great fictional neighbor to Anne. If you haven’t yet enjoyed the Betsy-Tacy books, definitely make time for them in your reading schedule. They’re worth it.

Reviewed from a library e-book.

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14 Responses to Review: Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace

  1. While I agree with your review, if I remember from the other Betsy Tacy books, Tib’s accent was from the German immigrant population — those were the foreigners. Given these were being written with WWII either going on/ fresh in the memory, I thought it was a nuanced look at an immigrant population that was demonized during both world wars.

    I think Betsy is at her most slate breaking is Betsy & The Great World, because of the move, supported by her parents, to travel instead of going to school. And much as I like Betsy/Joe and Betsy’s Wedding, I thought it suffered from fitting the Betsy/Joe fiction into the author’s own timeline of events — the author’s life as an adult was quite slate breaking!

    • Brianna says:

      You are absolutely right about Tib’s accent, and you make a good point – I didn’t pause to consider the context. It is interesting to me how, in my reading of the book as an adult, this sets Tib apart as “other” in this particular book from the series.

      • Jackie Dolamore says:

        A fellow B-T fan on my Facebook had linked to this review, and I have to agree with the previous poster–the portrayal of Tib was definitely not xenophobia on Maud’s part. If you reread all the books as a whole you would probably notice these mentions weren’t unconscious racism on Maud’s part, but, I believe, a conscious portrayal of the world she grew up in. She was obviously aware of and sensitive to other cultures and races.

        For instance, in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, the girls encounter a Syrian girl from Deep Valley’s Syrian community. It is mentioned how boys shout “dago” at the girl and other mentions of racism, but their community is shown with sensitivity and appreciation. In Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy goes to Milwaukee with Tib and gets to experience a German Christmas. Throughout the books there is acknowledgment of characters’ cultural heritages, of the prejudice Tib and other characters experience at times, and dare I say a joy in experiencing other cultures.

        As a side note, Maud Hart Lovelace was very passionate about the Civil Rights movement and in the 1960s wrote a children’s book, the Valentine Box, which has an African-American main character–but the story is not even about the child being African-American. She noticed a lack of books like this and wanted to fill the void. One of the things I love most about Maud is how she acknowledged that racism and sexism did (and do) exist, but at the same time it wasn’t what her books were about.

  2. Charlotte says:

    My favorite of these books isn’t a Betsy one–it’s Emily of Deep Valley. Have you read it? I’m wondering if it counts as slatebreaking–Emily certainly is concerned with making a meaningful life for herself, but I’m not sure she activly challenges gender stereotypes…

    • Valerie Van Kooten says:

      That’s one of my favorites, too, though it has an air of sadness about it; definitely a darker book than the Betsy-Tacy ones.

    • Jan Smith says:

      I loved Emily of Deep Valley, too. It is probably the most endearing, heartwarming book in the Deep Valley series. I loved Emily, her grandfather and the whole story. She wasn’t expected to work, so she found other interests and surrounded herself with good people. She embraced a relationship with the Syrians and I’d say she was a slatebreaker.

  3. maddogsaint says:

    I’d have to disagree with your assessment of Betsy not being a slate-breaker, but I can see how you’d reach that conclusion based on one book.

    I constantly recommend this series to parents of young girls, because it does what I consider a truly ground-breaking thing. It shows female friendship as a healthy, positive influence for good. It shows a supportive family and environment, both for the ambitious girls and the non-ambitious girls. Betsy’s father is concerned about Julia becoming an opera singer, but not because he thinks that a woman’s place is in the home – because he thinks it’s a very hard life, and he worries about his beloved daughter. But he supports and encourages her (the supportive father being another definite novelty in girl’s lit). Her mother may not work outside the home (this particular book takes place in 1909, not the 1940’s), but it’s clear she’s a very active and well-respected member of her community, and she is supportive of her children as well. Throughout these books, the number one thing that impresses me is no one is telling these girls that they can’t. Carney wants to be a housewife? Okay! Julia wants to be an opera star? Okay! Tib wants to do everything? That’s fine, she’s talented enough! No one’s life choices are portrayed as wrong, unless they’re contrary to who the person really is, and I think that’s an enormously valuable lesson.

    Tib is probably the real slate-breaker of the bunch, since she’s the one who defies gender norms the most (besides being interested in clothes and boys – but she balances that out with being interested in football, art, cooking, architecture, sewing, designing, dancing…). It’s maybe gentler than Anne Shirley, but it’s more consistent, especially in the later books of Betsy~Tacy vs. the later Anne books.

  4. katieinsaline says:

    I think the problem here is that you are comparing Maud’s semi-autobiographic series with the wholly invented Anne series. Maud tells the truth about being a young woman coming of age at the turn of the last century. Sometimes this means she did dumb things, other times it means she was a radical slatebreaker. To use what is considered the least popular of the HS books to define Betsy Ray, her family, and the series is just sloppy.

  5. katieinsaline says:

    Reviewing a YA book written in the 1940s and skimming it for feminist content is usually a fruitless endeavor. I’d think you may have been able to discern a bit more had you looked at the series as a whole. Feminist does not mean feisty female protagonist.

  6. Ann says:

    To say Betsy “is no Anne Shirley” surprises me. If anything, Betsy appears more favorably than Anne does at the same age, although if one is going to compare them, it needs to be done of the two characters over the course of the stories, not when they are 16 and acting like typical 16-year-olds. Anne spends a lot of time writing, like Betsy does, but at this point, Betsy has already been published. Betsy, while she makes a lot of poor choices (and who doesn’t at 16?), she is shown by the end of Betsy Was a Junior to be learning from the consequences of those choices, and we get the impression that next year will be different. It takes Anne much longer to move past rebellion as the only way to move forward. I have always considered the Betsy Tacy novels better feminist role models than the Anne books. Part of empowering girls is to show them what is possible. Anne must fight at every turn to be an author, and always has a life that tells her she shouldn’t. Even when she is married to Gilbert, her role is first that of doctor’s wife. It is so difficult, it seems kind of remarkable that she does become a successful writer. On the other hand, Betsy’s life shows us a young woman who has a dream in life, whose family supports her, and whose main obstacles are of her own making. It shows a girl that she have a right to expect support from family, and a right to expect to achieve her dreams.

  7. Sarah says:

    This is such a fascinating conversation! I agree with a lot of the posters – I think from my childhood reading I loved Betsy Ray as much as I loved Anne. And I think the points about Betsy’s career are good ones. In my overall assessment of the series, I find Betsy and her compatriots to be absolute Slatebreakers – I want to re-read them again, as an adult and see if they resonate with me in the same way. Also, somehow I totally missed Emily of Deep Valley – I will definitely have to track that down.

    However, I think if you look at what’s being said in this review, it is not suggesting that “feminist equals feisty female protagonist” – she’s taking a nuanced look at one aspect of the story. I think the books are feminist overall, and I also don’t think that the characters have to make feminist choices at every single moment for that to be true. I think that it’s an interesting idea to look at a feminist series from the perspective of the individual books, which might not lead up to the same narrative we’re imagining. If I were reviewing LM Montgomery’s series, for example, based solely on Anne’s House of Dreams? I don’t know that we would have named this blog after her. And it doesn’t negate how great the books are, nor does it invalidate criticisms we might have of one of them. Slatebreaking or non-Slatebreaking books and characters within series that are the opposite is a fascinating subject, that I’d like to explore more.

  8. Brianna says:

    I too am enjoying this lively conversation! Commenters, you have convinced me of two things. First, that I owe it to myself (and the legacy of Maud Hart Lovelace) to re-read all of the Betsy-Tacy books and refresh my memory of the series beyond Betsy Was a Junior. Second, maybe I was too quick to label Betsy “not a Slatebreaker.” In Betsy Was a Junior, perhaps Betsy Ray is more a pre-slatebreaker – someone who comes into her own in books to come. She is certainly a female character that has stood the test of time and inspired smart, independent women for decades. Just look at the conversation this character has started in this space! There is certainly something special about Betsy Ray and the fictional world that Maud Hart Lovelace has created if it can motivate such great discourse.

    One key factor that sets Anne Shirley and Betsy Ray apart for me is their class status. Betsy Ray is, as Ann commented, fortunate to have strong family support. She is also lucky to have seemingly generous financial resources to support her in her intellectual and social pursuits. Anne Shirley, however, is consistently fighting to get the support and resources she needs to achieve her goals. Again, Ann mentioned this in her comment. Although Anne has Marilla and Diana as a support system, they offer little in the way of financial capital that can help Anne along the way. It was tough for me (as a young reader) to picture myself doing some of the things that Betsy Ray did because they were so very far from my socio-economic experience, whereas Anne’s experiences seemed more like something that might happen to me. That does not make either character more or less feminist than the other – but for me as a reader, it did make Anne’s journey feel more compelling. It is a matter a personal preference.

  9. katieinsaline says:

    I’ve been thinking about this, and Brianna, I just want to acknowledge and make sure you know that I think that you have some really interesting points. My reaction was based on looking at the character as a whole, since she does mature and grow throughout the series. I’ve been looking over the blog and you two have great and thoughtful reviews and promote wonderful, feminist characters. Perhaps I should have waited to comment on one until I looked at the whole 🙂

  10. Eileen says:

    What I did love about these books is the fact that the females are very strong individuals who support each other’s choices. Also, Betsy’s marriage to Joe is anything but sexist – yes she is a housewife but Joe respects her desire to write and her talent and in Betsy’s Wedding, convinces her that they should hire a cleaning woman so that Betsy would have more free time to write, since that is her first ambition. I daresay that was not so common in the early 20th Century. Betsy Ray remains one of my favorite fictional female characters Another good book in this series, a non-Betsy book, is Carney’s House Party. Carney goes to Vassar College and several times mentions support of womens rights which her father supports

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