Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace. Harper Perennial. First published in 1947. Currently available.
Genre: YA Realistic Fiction
Face 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.