Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown, Chapters 3 - 5

Chapter 3 and 4     Winona’s Tickets, More About Winona's Tickets

When Betsy, Tacy and Tib finish bragging about Tib’s adventure, they begin to plot to persuade Winona to invite them to the show.  They consider a bribe but then Tacy has a better idea – they should hypnotize her!

“Take us to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Take us.  Take us.  Take us,” they intone silently from all directions during the school day.  Winona is slightly unnerved by their glassy stares and their teacher.   The trio’s teacher scolds them for not facing front and doesn’t understand why Tib won’t describe her exciting horseless carriage experience but Tib realized that might hurt their cause with Winona.  In fact, Winona says loudly that she won’t take people who stare at her! The girls drop that plan but hypnosis continues to appeal to certain Betsy-Tacy fans in the Pacific Northwest when needed.
Betsy is yearning for Uncle Tom’s Cabin but nobly she does not ask her father to get her a ticket because she knows that wouldn’t help Tacy.   Her longing was a little like what she felt when she saw rows and rows of books in other people’s bookcases (she had read all the books in the bookcase at home).  Kindred meet spirit!  Not that I will ever finish all the books at my home!

After flattering Winona endlessly and other plans don’t work, the girls give up their schemes and decide to give their own play.  Mrs. Ray gives them permission to use costumes from Betsy’s Uncle Keith’s trunk.  Her brother Keith ran away from home at 17 to be an actor and his trunk was sent to Mrs. Ray several years later, and she is sad that the family never heard from him again but feels the costumes should be used.   The Repentance of Lady Clinton becomes a play and they try to lure Winona into playing the lead. 

“We’re going to use Gyp . . . you saw him . . . for a bloodhound.  He’s going to chase Lady Clinton over cakes of ice in Tib’s back parlor.”
Tib shuddered.  She did not know how her mother would like cakes of ice in the back parlor.

Winona seems intrigued but then loses interest, and the girls finally give up.  However, at the last minute Winona calls Betsy on the Rays’ new telephone:

After a pause, Winona said, “You know those ‘comps’ I have for Uncle Tom’s Cabin?”
“Four of them.”
“Well, I want you and Tacy and Tib to go with me.”
“Oh, do you?” Betsy said.
“Yes, I did all the time. I asked my father for four ‘comps’ just so’s I could take you.”

Betsy is not angry at Winona for playing with them for what seems like forever.  When Winona says she wants to be out in front before the doors open on Saturday, “Betsy felt a warmth of affectionate understanding, a warmth of fellowship. She had never been to a play before but she knew that she loved them just as Winona did."


Do you love the theatre like Betsy?   I know there are many theatre buffs who love Betsy-Tacy.   Do you remember the first time you went to a real theatre?   Mine was to see Damn Yankees at the local junior high.  I loved it!

What a pain Winona is in these chapters!  But don’t you think she genuinely has fun with the trio and that’s why she wants to invite them?

Betsy has read all the books in the bookcase at home.  She really needs a new source of books (foreshadowing)!  Is anyone desperate for new books to read during this pandemic?   Have you picked up books you’ve had for years or deliberately bought something long like Hilary Mantel?  

Literary/Musical/Historical References:

Onward Christian Soldiers (1865) was one of the best known 19th-century hymns, originally conceived as a march for children.  The music was composed by Arthur Sullivan, usually mentioned as part of the operetta duo of Gilbert & Sullivan.   Listen here.

The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a poem about the early days of Plymouth, Massachusetts.  According to tradition, both Standish and his friend John Alden were interested in Priscilla Mullins.  Standish asked Alden to sound out Priscilla to see what she thought of him and she responded, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”   (She married John and – who knew - it turns out Longfellow is one of their descendants!) If you ask a Bostonian, we would say Longfellow’s most famous work begins, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere!”  However, this erudite group doubtless knows without my reminder that he also wrote The Song of Hiawatha (foreshadowing).
Gibson Girls - Artist Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) became famous for his pen and ink drawings of stylish and beautiful American women at the turn of the century.  He was born in Roxbury, MA where my office is located (the neighborhood has changed!). The Gibson Girl wore her hair piled high in a pompadour and her wardrobe was full of elegant dresses, shirtwaists, bustle gowns, and floor-length skirts, each worn on the appropriate occasion, at a proper time of the day.  His drawings were printed in magazines like Life.  Tacy had probably traced a picture from a magazine, then colored it and put it in a “passe-partout” which is basically glass and matting fastened together without a frame.

The Big Mill whistle came from the Hubbard (flour) Mill (now a part of Cargill), an enormous structure that was located right on the riverfront in order to take advantage of river, railroad, and even trucking distribution.   A mill whistle signals shift changes so the evening whistle sends the workers home and alerted others that supper was imminent.

Chapter 5         Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Betsy, Tacy and Tib have never been to the Opera House before, which is where all of Deep Valley’s theatrical productions take place.  Originally founded as Harmonia Hall by affluent local brewers in 1872, it was renamed the Mankato Opera House when it was remodeled in 1878, according to our own Julie Shrader in a recent Mankato Life  article and used as a playhouse.  A performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin actually took place there on Boxing Day in 1881 (several years earlier than the setting of this book).  As a child, I took for granted Deep Valley’s ability to attract what appears to be big time theatre but MHL explains that Deep Valley (aka Mankato) is between the Twin Cities (82 miles) and Omaha (288 miles) so it is a reasonable stopover for a production. 

When the girls reach the Opera House, several hours before the Opera House is even open, Winona shows everyone the ropes and they run into two boys, Tom Slade and Herbert Humphreys, the handsome new boy in town.  A little flirtation results, another first for the girls, although Tacy is too bashful to participate (foreshadowing).  

Once inside, they inspect every inch of the theatre: “It was elegant beyond even Winona’s descriptions and Betsy’s wildest dreams,” and that is before the curtain goes up!  The gallery where Tom and Herbert are sitting costs 10 cents.  The most expensive seats are 30 cents. They wave to Mrs. Poppy, sitting in special seats designed for her and her husband.  The production itself is amazing (it went over my head as a child but the actors are all white, using cork to portray black characters) and the girls are so entranced they don’t mind that Winona is being a know-it-all. 

Betsy, Tacy, Tib and Winona clapped and cheered and pounded.  At last the curtain came down to stay down.  The play was over.
“Didn’t I tell you it was good?” Winona asked.  She seemed to feel she had written the play and acted every part.
Betsy didn’t mind.  She felt warm inside toward Winona.  Winona had given her this wonderful gift of the play.  And Winona loved it just as she did.

Winona takes them knowledgeably to the stage door where they gawk at the actors, particularly the girl who played Little Eva.  My family is big on waiting at the stage door and has a very cute picture of several nephews and niece with Lin-Manuel Miranda.  


Betsy’s early writing (and maybe her later writing!) is very melodramatic but so is Uncle Tom’s Cabin so who can blame her?   When did realistic fiction become popular?   Mark Twain (1835–1910) is one example of an author who used daily life and colloquial speech to depict 19th century Americana, along with Stephen Crane (1871–1900), known for The Red Badge of Courage and William Dean Howells (1837–1920) who wrote The Rise of Silas Lapham.  I am guessing most of us read The Red Badge of Courage and Huck Finn in junior high or high school.  Any fans?  Little Women (1868) became popular because of its focus on the sisters’ everyday lives and Betsy would certainly have read it.   Why is she more influenced by Lady Audley’s Secret than Little Women?

Do you prefer a play vs. musical?   Usually, I will pick the musical, although have hated a few like Next to Normal, which won three Tony Awards (when you pay Broadway prices  or even Broadway half-prices and dislike a performance you feel very guilty and start thinking about starving children) (“Finish your dinner, there are starving children in Biafra,” my great-aunt used to say.)

Status in Deep Valley:  We’ll get into this a little more later with Mrs. Poppy but think about this – Tib’s father is an architect, part of the professional class (which perhaps goes with their belonging to the Episcopal Church); Betsy’s father is a presumably prosperous merchant and Tacy’s father sells sewing machines; Winona’s father runs the newspaper.  Are we starting to see social class or income differences in Deep Valley?

Literary/Musical/Historical References:

As Mankato appears to have been incorporated as a city on March 6, 1868, I suppose that makes Deep Valley a city rather than a town.  Thoughts?   In 1880, Mankato ranked fourth in size in the state, with a population of 5,500.   That is a lot of potential shoe customers!

Mr. Poppy’s horseless carriage would have cost over $1000 but for 10 cents you can sit in the peanut gallery at the Opera House.   Take-home pay in 2015 vs. 1915: Census Bureau data show that the median household income, measured from 2009 to 2013 (the most recent data available), is $53,046. Back in 1915, two years after income tax came on the scene, you were doing about average if you were making $687 a year, according to the Census. That is, if you were a man. If you were a woman, cut that number by about half.
Thomas Flyer car from 1904
Miss Evelyn Montmorency: This is a mystery!  I always assumed there was a real child actress by this name but the only one I can find by this name is a 21st century “American child actress best known for her role as Paula Steward in the American preteen sitcom Hole in the Ozone.   Is she One of Us?   Surely no one could be born with this name?    Did this show really exist?

The orchestra warms up the crowd with well-known songs by Stephen Foster (1826-1864): Old Kentucky Home (I like this John Prine version which is winsome rather than the sappy rendition at the Kentucky Derby), Swanee River, and Massa’s in de Cold Cold Ground.   Foster is considered the most important American songwriter of the 19th century, writing more than 200 songs, many of them world-famous, although he died at 37.    Because a number of Foster's songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time some modern critics consider them derogatory to African-Americans, although Ken Burns posits that as Foster’s work matured he revealed the realities of slavery while providing dignity to the slaves he depicted. 

Minstrel shows started in New York in 1843 but were also popular in Minnesota. “As entertainment in the 19th century, white people told jokes in Negro dialect,’ performing caricatures of black Americans that portrayed black Americans as dangerous, shifty, lazy, and stupid. To us today, these were acts of demeaning hatred. And yet this obvious racism was America’s absolute favorite art form for decades. This was minstrelsy.   The Minnesota Post explains that minstrel shows became incorporated in vaudeville acts, appearing at major theatres and the Minnesota State Fair:  “In the long run, blackface minstrelsy embedded [negative stereotypes about African Americans] into American popular thought, and by the mid-1800s, it was the most popular form of entertainment in the US. Many scholars and historians assert that blackface minstrelsy was the first original form of popular American entertainment.”   
Nothing like 19th-century
product extensions!

Car image copyright to http://www.americanautoemblems.com/2020/04/thomas.html, BT image copyright to HarperCollins

1 comment:

Lory said...

Thanks for walking us through the books with so much fascinating extra information!

I reread Betsy-Tacy up through high school before I left the States. I was impressed all over again particularly by the first four books. They are funny, perceptive and written with economy of style that is very effective. When Betsy gets older, the style changes and becomes more fluid and chatty. I love them as well, but I think the books for the younger are actually artistically superior.

Why does Betsy want to write Lady Audley's Secret rather than Little Women? Well, Jo herself (and Louisa too) wanted to write that way when she was young! My son is like that too, he craves thrilling adventures and can't imagine anyone being interested in a diary of his humdrum everyday existence. Maybe he'll change as he grows up. With maturity, everyday life generally becomes more valuable to us.