Monday, June 10, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 1

Chapter 1 - As I take the baton for the Betsy-Tacy listserv's discussion of Betsy Was a Junior, I ask you to imagine it is the end of August rather than early June and that we are all about to return to high school. Part of me is horrified at the very idea, but part of me is convinced I could do it so much better now! What do you think? For those like me who wished high school were more like Deep Valley or Harkness High, would you make a few lists a la Betsy Ray and do a Groundhog Day-like second attempt if that were possible? Or did it live up to your expectations in the first place and you don’t need a do-over?
I think it is fair to say that of all Maud’s books this inspires the strongest emotions due to Betsy’s involvement with sororities and how it affects those around her. One of the reasons we have high standards for Betsy is that we have seen her take stock of herself at the beginning of every school year, make goals, try to live up to them, make mistakes, learn and move forward. As with Beany Malone, sometimes it just seems as if she isn’t getting the message and keeps making the same mistakes. Well, I know I make mistakes so why should I hold Betsy to a higher standard? Plus, I understand one needs human angst to make a good story.

As BWAJ begins, Betsy is spending the summer at Murmuring Lake. She has enjoyed the first two years of high school but longs to be a siren like her older sister Julia. She also has regrets about not having done her best work on the school essay contest. Her freshman year she was too busy socializing to prepare for it, and her sophomore year the contest coincided with her breakup with Phil Brandish. But this year will be different. “I’m going to make my junior year just perfect,” Betsy writes in her journal. “As for boys,” she concludes, “I think I’ll go with Joe Willard!” Oh, Betsy, don’t you know you shouldn’t jinx yourself this way? Only big sister Julia can make these definitive statements and follow through on them - although she is heading off to the U for her freshman year and outside the friendly confines of Deep Valley perhaps even Julia will lose some of her charisma and potency.

For me, BWAJ is one of my favorites, partly because it was the last BT book I read. My childhood library, housed in a lovely yellow building in Newton, MA owned copies of every book except Winona’s Pony Cart and BWAJ, even Emily of Deep Valley and Carney's House Party (I knew more about Vassar than my high school friend who went there). I found Winona in a small library in Chappaqua, NY where my grandmother lived (I also found Cousins by Evan Commager in that library, which I loved and recommend to anyone who can find it). But in the days before online card catalogues, there wasn’t much way to investigate interlibrary loan. One day, several years after I had read the rest of the books, my mother and I went back to the branch of the Boston Public Library where I had got my first library card. Unerringly, I found my way to the L books and there was a beautiful hardcover with dust jacket copy of BWAJ just waiting for me. The children’s librarian, whose name was Judy Lieberman, was delighted for me to find a book that meant so much to me, and in later years teased me that I checked it out so much she should just give it to me. I started reading it in the car driving home, and my mother and sister read it the minute I was done (some things never change - when my sister finished the new Sarah Dessen this weekend, she handed it to me without a word).

So perhaps my long wait for this book is one of the reasons I am so fond of it. Moreover, while we will come to aspects of the book that may cause concern, it is also full of the things we love about Deep Valley: the parties, the dating, the characters we love, the clothes we admire, the teachers we dislike, the assignments we meant to get to, the fudge, but best of all the way the Rays rally around each other in times of crisis.
Leaving aside sororities for the moment, if you could wake up tomorrow as part of the Crowd in the fall of 1908, wouldn’t it be hard to turn your back on that opportunity?  

[From time to time avid Betsy-Tacy fans conduct a group read of the beloved books by Maud Hart Lovelace - let me know if you would like to join us online.]  

The BWAJ images are copyrighted to HarperCollins.

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