Friday, July 26, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 8

Junior year is coming to a close, and a Deep Valley tradition is the Junior-Senior Banquet.  You will recall that Betsy was disappointed not to be appointed to chair a committee for the banquet, but due to the generosity (and perhaps humility) of Hazel Smith, who chaired the Decorating Committee, the trio are fully involved with the planning (which necessitates many meetings and even a sleepover at the Ray house).  The juniors labor to turn the school into a park, and those gifted domestically apparently cook the entire dinner.  Betsy spends so much time planning that she forgets to worry whether Dave Hunt, silent as to his intentions per usual, will turn up to take her to the banquet.  She even wears an old dress (unlike Betsy; also unlike Rosamond duJardin heroines who always have a new formal for every occasion).  Everything is perfect on this special day and evening: Hazel appreciates Betsy’s work planning the banquet; Stan seems to apologize to Betsy for having usurped her spot in the Essay Contest (although it wasn’t his fault he got chosen instead); Joe has created literary menus (I always love these); Stan and Miss Bangeter make great speeches.  Then it is time for dancing and the moment we’ve all been waiting for finally arrives (the moment that even those who don’t like BWAJ eagerly anticipate) when Joe approaches Betsy and says, “May I have a dance, Miss Ray?”   Her dance card is full but Betsy is determined not to wreck this opportunity as she has let others slip away:
In her freshman year he had asked to walk home with her from a party and she had had to turn him down.  After a long time he had asked to walk home with her from the library one evening.  Again she had had to turn him down.

“This would be three times and out,” she thought. “I have to break this jinx.”

She smiled.  “I’m going to give you a dance.  Some of these people who took two can just give one up.”

Joe’s dance card now has every dance marked for Phyllis except the second to last for Betsy.  Georgette Heyer would probably advise him that it is not seemly to dance with a young lady more than twice in an evening even if one is her escort, but we know that Phyllis is indifferent to the opinions of the polite world.   She does not, however, like rivals.  As the news that Joe asked Betsy for a dance spreads through the hall, Phyllis finds out and insists on being taken home.

Betsy is standing by the dance floor, partnerless, wondering if she should go hide in the cloak room when Joe reappears and sweeps her onto the floor, and as they dance Betsy wonders, understandably, what this means in terms of their future relationship.  Betsy knows that Joe isn’t the type to dump Phyllis but because Phyllis is a senior, she will graduate and disappear – leaving lots of possibilities for Betsy and Joe’s senior year.  “He whirled her as she had never been whirled before,” and the reader knows it is the long awaited beginning of Betsy and Joe’s romance and rejoices.
The other good news from the banquet is that Tony attends, dances with all the girls from the Crowd, and promises to come to Sunday Night Lunch.

(image above copyright to Betsy Was a Junior, HarperCollins)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 7

A whole year of botany? Shouldn’t they have been taking biology or chemistry? Perhaps the Deep Valley School Board had issues with creationism? Or maybe our heroines merely wanted an easy class. In contrast, my 15 year old niece has already taken biology, chemistry and was told to take physics or colleges wouldn’t think she was a serious student (Betsy does take physics her senior year which I had completely forgotten). If my college career had depended on a good grade in science, I would still be in high school. But just as my biology teacher disappeared at Christmas and was replaced by the driver’s ed teacher, so too Mr. Gaston has been “removed” from the English Department (probably not because of the rosy apple blossoms) and sent to teach Science, and there is no indication he knows much more about botany than Betsy, Tacy and Tib.

But the issue is procrastination more than botany. Mr. Gaston gave clear instructions about the herbariums on the first day of class, and the girls bought the necessary office supplies (always easier and more fun than actually doing the assignment). Suddenly, the project is due the next day!
Betsy was scornful. “There’s no law about going to bed the night before you have to make a herbarium for botany. You both know as well as I do that the Big Hill is simply covered with flowers. We could find 50 different kinds between now and nine o’clock tomorrow.”

“But, Betsy,” said Tib. “We don’t have to just pick them. We have to dry them and press them and past them up and label them.”

“All the harder,” said Betsy triumphantly.

As someone who has pulled more than her fair share of all nighters (high school, college, grad school and even for work), I like Betsy’s attitude and I can tell you it is sometimes the only way to get something done (even if one hasn’t procrastinated since September). Belatedly, Betsy organizes their approach: they will gather as many flowers as possible, then spend the night at Tib’s where they will systematically dry and prepare the flowers without interference (you would have thought Mrs. Muller would have been much more suspicious than she was). However, it turns out to be more difficult than they expected to identity some of the flowers and they are far short of 50. It is also hard to dry them in a hurry! They manage to light the oven without injuring anyone and Tib’s brothers help by monitoring the flowers baking and by grabbing some weeds from the garden to augment the collection. The best moment is when they get up early to grab yet more flowers and belatedly realize that flowers don’t open until the sun comes out. In desperation, some anonymous greens are tossed into the binders and Betsy airily suggests they say to Gaston, “What are these rare and interesting specimens? We can’t find them in any of our learned tomes.” But as they walk to school Tib points out that they could have done a good job on this project if they hadn’t waited till the last minute and she, at least, would have enjoyed it.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Gaston is less than impressed with their work, and they are lucky to get a C from him. “Never, never, in my whole life,” said Mr. Gaston (he was twenty-four), “never in my whole career as a teacher,” (he had taught for three years), “have I seen such herbariums! Not a fall flower included!” Whenever I read this chapter I am reminded of my seventh grade social studies teacher who invited three girls in the class to do independent research instead of going to class. Delighted, we went down to the library. The first day I brought home several books about Social Customs in 17th Century New England (I remember my mother saying disapprovingly that I needed a narrower topic or theme but I liked Dr. Mather and ignored her). The next day I found a Mary Stewart I hadn’t read (how did I end up in the fiction section) and somehow that paper never got written. Some day Dr. Mather will turn up at my front door reproachfully – oh dear, I just did some googling and learned that, sadly, he died in Lethbridge in 2011 after a lengthy illness. I just wrote to his widow, who may find it very odd that I am sorry about the loss of someone I hadn’t seen since 1973.  Let's hope someone would mourn Mr. Gaston.

Next time – the Junior/Senior Banquet!

(Image above copyright to HarperCollins)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 6

Even though I know Betsy deserves it, I suffer for her when the bolts from the blue start coming:  first, she and the other Okto Deltas are excluded from heading committees for the Junior/Senior Banquet.   Then, much, much worse – Miss Clarke unhappily tells Betsy that there is bad feeling against the sorority and for that reason she won’t be asked to represent the Zets in the Essay Contest (and we all know this should have been Betsy’s time after she squandered her opportunity freshman year and then broke up with Phil Brandish right before the sophomore year essay) (it is endearing how indignant Joe is on Betsy’s behalf when he hears the news).

Next, Julia comes home unexpectedly from the U to reveal that Rush Week, which she and the whole family had eagerly awaited, has been bitterly painful.  The Epsilon Iotas have dropped her!  Someone in the group has blackballed her!  This is the first time that the beautiful and talented Julia hasn’t gotten her way.  Mr. Ray is indignant but sees the larger picture, “Julia isn’t the only little girl whose feelings have been hurt, I imagine,” he said.  “It’s a mighty funny thing that the State University, supported by the public, can have private clubs which are so important.”   But privately he and Mrs. Ray decide they will allow Julia to follow her voice teacher to Germany to study music seriously.  They decide to wait until after Rush Week to tell her.  In fact, as you know, the Epsilon Iotas relent at the last minute and Julia is voted it.  I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed the fact that Julia’s flirtatious ways finally caught up with her – the woman blackballing her is upset because Julia stole her boyfriend, something Julia had joked about earlier in the book.

The next bolt from the blue is when Alice reveals that Tony was suspended for coming to school drunk, and has been “going around with a perfectly awful girl.”  Without the Crowd to keep him engaged in wholesome activities, he has gone to the dogs, and that can at least be partially attributed to the Okto Deltas (although admittedly, everyone wanted him in the fraternity and he was the one who rejected it - even if exclusive, it would have been better than drinking and playing pool in inappropriate parts of Deep Valley - yes, even Deep Valley apparently has its dark side).   Betsy knows she let Tony down.  When Miss Bangeter asks Carney to persuade the other girls to end Okto Delta, Betsy is relieved.  She knows it’s time.

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post this week about the 100th anniversary of the Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority with a history of public service which the largest African-American women's organization in the country .  “Well-known Deltas include: Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X; civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer; human rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune; actress Ruby Dee; singers Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin and Lena Horne; and congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan.”   The achievements of these women (and many less famous) make their sorority sound quite admirable, and of course most modern sororities emphasize community service to some extent  so I am not condemning all sororities by any means but my college didn’t have any so my experience is all second hand.  The closest I got was when my aunt was chosen the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi when she was at Duke and I was about 12.


In contrast to all this gloom, the funniest chapter in BWAJ (and one of the funniest in the high school books) is when Betsy, Tacy and Tib suddenly realize their herbarium assignment is due, but that must wait for another day.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 5

Even after Betsy Ray vows to make Okto Delta more serious it was uphill work. The girls’ activities become more and more frivolous, and Winona suggests the boys should either join or start their own group. Carney drives the girls to the St. John game in the Sibley auto, with an Okto Delta pennant fastened to the front. Even with Tib sitting on Winona’s lap, how did they all fit in the car? (I always wondered how the Gilbreths all fit in their car too.) Dreadful moment – when Hazel Smith starts over to join Betsy at the football game, realizes she’d be intruding on the sorority and withdraws. That is an awful feeling, whether you are the inadvertent crasher or someone like Betsy who did not intend to hurt Hazel’s feelings (but made no reparation). And isn’t it typical that all of Deep Valley High knows about the sorority except Joe Willard? Of course, Joe has better things to do, like earn his living, but in a way he is the unwitting cause of the Okto Deltas – had he been dating Betsy instead of Phyllis, suggestible Betsy might have had a more serious junior year.
This year is one party after another (and how did Tacy and Katie manage to host the Okto Deltas and the whole football team in that tiny house? And how could there have been room to waltz?) By now, Betsy has (more or less) put aside her chagrin at Joe’s involvement with Phyllis Brandish and spends hours discussing with Tib whether she should date Dave Hunt. She and Tib give Dennie and Cab their pins to wear, which causes a sensation (I am surprised Winona doesn’t pulverize Tib). Julia comes home for Thanksgiving with the song that Barbara still hasn’t been able to identify: “You are my Rose of Mexico, the one I loved so long ago…” And then Dave Hunt finally asks her out – to a big dance at Schiller Hall! It is that night, getting ready with Tib, that Betsy burns her bangs like Jo March! But at least that give her something to talk about with Dave Hunt who is his usual silent self at the dance but seems to be enjoying himself.

Among the enticing parties in Deep Valley is the Okto Delta progressive dinner. I always yearned to attend a progressive myself but the closest I have been was attending what was called a Stairway to Heaven party in college where a different type of alcohol was served on each floor. I am afraid the NewBetsys live too far apart to make such a function feasible. All these parties are having a bad effect on Betsy’s grades (identical to Maud’s), as is the stress of dating a handsome basketball player who never tells her if he is going to show up at her front door or not. In fairness to Dave, she never asks him and he probably doesn’t realize he should be more communicative. By the way, basketball was only invented in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts. It spread quickly indeed for Dave Hunt to have been starring on the Deep Valley team in 1908!

But while Dave Hunt is beauing Betsy around, Tony has dropped out of the Crowd because he refused to join a fraternity. This worries Betsy but she doesn’t know what to do about it, so she puts it out of her mind. Even worse, in February Margaret asks Betsy to help her have a party for Washington and Abie, but Betsy lingers after school and then at Heinz’s with Tib, Cab and Dennie instead of going home to her waiting sister. When she finally gets home, she finds the house dark, and Margaret had disastrously tried to start the party preparations without her, and sizzled off her eyelashes when she tried to light the gas stove! Fortunately, Margaret’s eyes are not hurt but this is Betsy’s lowest and most shameful moment. It is also the most cringeworthy moment for the reader and why, I suspect, many readers dislike this book. There is something about Betsy’s failure to take care of Margaret when Mrs. Ray is in the Twin Cities and on Anna’s night out that makes the reader very judgmental although let she who is without sin cast the first stone…

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 4

I will get back to sororities shortly but last week when I was looking for pictures of University of Minnesota buildings that Julia and Betsy Ray would have known in the early 20th century, I came across the name of Ada Comstock, who was the first Dean of Women at the U from 1901 to 1912.  Ada’s name was already very familiar to me because she was the president of my alma mater, Radcliffe College, from 1923-43. 

I was ridiculously pleased to think there was a connection between Betsy and me, although obviously attenuated as I never met Ada (she retired before my mother arrived at Radcliffe in the 50s, then married a Yale History professor and moved to New Haven, where she was living at her death in 1973 at the age of 97).  I was excited when someone suggested that Ada Comstock might be the sister of Betsy’s much loved history teacher, Miss Clarke. The Betsy-Tacy Companion explains that Miss Clarke’s real name was Grace Comstock; she was from an old Mankato family and had attended the U herself.  However, after some investigation it turns out that while they might conceivably be related, Ada and Grace were not sisters.  Originally from Maine, Ada’s father, Solomon G. Comstock (1842-1933), became a prominent lawyer in Morehead, Minnesota.  He was a Republican politician and served a term in Congress.  He was committed to education and supported the school that became Concordia College and sponsored legislation that led to the establishment of the eventual Morehead State (its student union is named for him).   Solomon’s wife, Sarah (1845-1941) was also civic minded and was involved in establishing the first public library in Morehead. 
Ada sounds like Winona Root.  She told people she was the first white child in the Red River Valley in Moorhead, and she grew up loving the wide prairies and wheat fields of the West.  She graduated from high school at 15 and began college at the U but was encouraged by her father to go East to college so transferred to Smith College in Massachusetts for her last two years (for those who know Smith, she lived in Hubbard House).  There is a story that she received a case of champagne while at Smith, which her housemother thought she should give away but she carefully stored it with the building’s water supplies so she could share it with her friends.

After graduating from Smith in 1897, Ada returned home and obtained her teaching certificate at what was then known as Moorhead State Normal School.  She then earned a Master’s Degree in English at Columbia in 1899, and then returned to Minnesota as an English Instructor and in 1907 was named Dean of Women at the U ( she would have been about 12 years older than Julia Ray when Julia arrived in September 1908 – that is, if Julia were real).  Although Ada looks severe, she was considered witty and was known for her unusually rich and persuasive voice (and she must have had a sense of humor to cope with the way Harvard treated Radcliffe as a second-class citizen).  The U still has an “Ada Comstock Distinguished Women Scholars Award & Lecture.”  She left the U to return to Smith as its first dean in 1912, and is remembered there with prestigiousscholarships in her name (at one point, she was the acting president of Smith but when the job was filled it went to a man – perhaps that is when she updated her resume and applied for the job in Cambridge).  In 1923 she left Smith for Radcliffe to be its first full-time president. 

Ada’s sister was, alas, not Grace but Jessie May, born in 1879.  She attended Radcliffe and their brother George attended Harvard.   Both Jessie and George (born 1886) returned to Minnesota after college, and George eventually donated the family home to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1965.  It has been restored to its 1883 appearance and is open for tours.  Moorhead appear to be closer to Fargo, North Dakota than to Minneapolis or Mankato so I doubt I will visit any time soon but the Comstock home sounds lovely: it is described as a “stunning example of late Victorian architecture. The 11-room, two-story home features elements of both Queen Anne and Eastlake designs. On the first floor is the front hall which leads to the parlor, library and sitting room. At the back of the house is the dining room, pantry, kitchen and a bedroom and bath. The second floor contains four bedrooms and a maid's chamber. An oak balustrated staircase leads from the first to the second floor. Many rooms contain original furnishings and personal effects of the Comstock family” and “[t]he home is characterized by a profusion of spindle work porches, high patterned chimneys and poly-chromed siding and trim. Situated on one of the highest points in the city, the property included an ice house, tool room, food storage room, and a barn for the family’s three horses and three carriages.”

The Comstock family's contribution to the early history of higher education in America lives on in the buildings at four different institutions:  Morehead State, the University of Minnesota, Smith, and Radcliffe (it now appears to have been absorbed by Pforzheimer House).  Imagine if Ada had spent more than a year at Columbia!

I am grateful to the Minnesota Historical Society’s website for Comstock House, from which I have quoted.