Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Betsy-Tacy Companion by Sharla Scannell Whalen

514 pages
Copyright 1995
Portalington Press
Whitehall, PA

I did not think I could complete my own Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge without first reading a biography of Mrs. Lovelace and without a doubt the best biography out there is The Betsy-Tacy Companion by Sharla Scannell Whalen.

The Plot:
"The Betsy-Tacy Companion is a biography of the author Maud Hart Lovelace. Lovelace is best known for her children's books, the Betsy-Tacy series. These books are strikingly autobiographical, and the Companion focuses on the people and events from the series, revealing the counterparts in Lovelace's own life. Betsy was Lovelace herself, Tacy was her best friend, Frances Kenney, etc.

The Companion begins by describing the time period shortly before that in which the first book, Betsy-Tacy, is set - the years 1883 to 1896. Companion chapters then cover, one by one, each of the Betsy-Tacy books, representing Lovelace's childhood (starting in 1897), taking her through high school a trip to Europe before the First World War, and to the early years of her marriage in Minneapolis, Minnesota. the last two chapters detail Lovelace's later adult life and writing career...

The Companion discusses not only similarities between the fictional Betsy and the real Maud, but equally importantly, reveals events in the author's life which were carefully omitted from the series. An overall picture of Lovelace as a woman and an author results." (Summary courtesy of the publisher, inside dust jacket flap)

My Thoughts:
I thought I had read The Betsy-Tacy Companion several years ago when I was reading through the Betsy-Tacy high school years for the first time, but when I picked it up for the Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge I quickly realized I had not. Perhaps I just flipped through the book and looked at the pictures? At any rate this was my first time reading about the life of Maud Hart Lovelace and how closely it was tied with her alter-ego, Elizabeth (Betsy) Warrington Ray.

At 514 pages The Betsy-Tacy Companion is chocked full of details, pictures, and sketches about Maud, her life in Minnesota and elsewhere, and of course the people, places and events within the Betsy-Tacy series. Of course this is probably much more than the average reader would care to know, but for me a life long fan of the series, I found it absolutely fascinating.

Most of the notes I made while reading I have compiled in a final Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge post which will appear later this week, but for now I have just a few thoughts I want to mention.

Learning more about Maud not only strengthened my love for her books, but also my opinion of her as an author and a person. Like any of us, Maud wasn't perfect, but from all accounts she appears to have been a loving and intelligent woman, who had a strong faith in God.

Towards the end of the biography Mrs. Whalen includes an excerpt from an article that Maud wrote about prayer. I'm including a quote from it here because I think it is an excellent example of who Maud was and what she believed:

"I believe in praying as I believe in breathing. An involuntary procedure, prayer runs along with the day, following the convolutions of work and play, duties, problems, and delights... It is my way to turn to God at any hour, with a small joy as well as with a sorrow, with plans, hopes, thanks - even wishes. Not that I expect Him to stay the course of the planets while He grants my often misguided petitions. But since He is love and is everything, 'nearer than hands and feet,' one may share everything with Him, and there is a blessed release in doing so. What He gives, I earnestly believe, in response to such spontaneous prayers, is strength, insight, appreciations, serenity, but above all a continuing reassurance of His presence..."
In addition to this example of her faith, I found numerous examples of Maud displaying love and kindness to her family, friends and even her fans! Case in point, at one time late in her life Maud considered writing a memoir Living with Writing, but "between answering her ever-arriving fan mail and the many interests she and Delos pursued together, Maud never completed another book." (TBTC, Chap. 14, pg. 475)

Initially I was disappointed to know that Maud had started, but didn't finish a book of memoirs. What rich reading they would have made! But then I realized two things, first as The Betsy-Tacy Companion subtly reveals, the Betsy-Tacy series was in a way her memoirs. Second, I think it says a lot about Maud that she would take the time not only to spend each day with those she loved, but to take the time to respond to those who loved her books. What a treasure those letters must have been to the readers who received them. I wish I had had such a chance.

In closing I want to add the following. The Betsy-Tacy Companion is not for everyone, but it is definitely a fun and extremely interesting read for those who have read and loved Maud's books. I particularly enjoyed getting a closer look at her relationship with Delos -- the real life Betsy and Joe and finding the "Then What Happened" part of Maud/Betsy's story post-Betsy's Wedding.

My only regret in reading and enjoying The Betsy-Tacy Companion so much is that it is not readily available. Published nearly 15 years ago it has fallen out of print and is only available in the form of expensive used copies. Of course I checked with my local libraries, but the only copy they had was listed as "reference" and thus could not be checked out! In the end I was fortunate enough to find a copy at a library near my husband's work that he could borrow for me. All that to say, don't give up if your library doesn't have a copy, or the only copy is catalogued as "reference." Check the ILL system or other libraries within your state.

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