A ramshackle four-story brownstone in mid-20th-century Manhattan. A Lower East Side tenement at the turn of the last century. The woods of Wisconsin in 1964.
These are just a few of the landscapes that female readers of children’s literature cling to well after they cease reading the books that introduced them. (“The Saturdays,” “All-of-a-Kind Family” and “Caddie Woodlawn” for those who somehow missed these greats.) But there may be no world that provokes such profound girlish longing as the bucolic century-old Minnesota of “Betsy-Tacy.”
First published more than 50 years ago, the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace retains a feverishly devoted contingent of fans. Of course, many great works of children’s literature have their partisans years after the last remnant of childishness fades into parenthood, middle age and wrinkles. Witness the great cheer that welcomed recent anniversaries of “Peter Pan” and “The Phantom Tollbooth.”
But few inspire their own dedicated society, complete with membership dues and an annual convention. Few of these go so far as to organize letter-writing campaigns pleading that a publisher send long out-of-print volumes back to press. Among Betsy-Tacy’s professed admirers are Bette Midler, Anna Quindlen and Nora Ephron.
So there is a built-in fan base for “The Betsy-Tacy Treasury,” which is being published by HarperCollins today. The new volume contains the first four Betsy-Tacy books: “Betsy-Tacy,” first published in 1940; “Betsy-Tacy and Tib”; “Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill“; and “Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.” Lovelace wrote six additional volumes, culminating in 1955’s “Betsy’s Wedding.”
Why all the excitement over a series of stories about everyday life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the fictional town of Deep Valley, Minn. ”“ a stand-in for the author’s real hometown of Mankato, Minn.?
It could be the little touches that resonate with all young girls: The established perfidy of older sisters. A “chocolate colored” house. A nearby hill that looms over the backyard symbolizing the acquisition of independence. And of course the idealized friendship between Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly, epitomized in that magnificent hyphen linking the two names together, testament to their girlish bond.
But does it also have something to do with the notion of five-year-old girls being allowed to dine outdoors together on a bench between their two homes, no grownups lurking overhead? Or two young friends mounting the big hill ”“ on their own? Or the prospect of a mother leaving three schoolgirls at home unattended one afternoon, with instructions to heat up their own cocoa on the stove?
In the sweet, safe sanctuary of Deep Valley, Minn., more than 100 years ago, such things were possible, at least in Betsy-Tacy’s universe. It’s a far cry from the overprotective, omni-parented world of 21st-century America with its myriad threats, real and imaginary. After reading aloud a few chapters to my own six-year-old daughter recently, my daughter sighed and said simply, “I want to live in this book.” She’s probably not the only one.