Behave Yourself, Bethany Brant by Patricia Beatty (Morrow Junior Books, $11.75; 172 pp.)
When it comes to evoking the qualities of time and place in our country's past, Patricia Beatty is first-rate. In this case the place is rural Texas, the time the turn of the century. Bethany Brant and her younger brother, Abel, are preacher's children. When their mother dies in childbirth, they have no choice but to live with their aunt and uncle and tomboy cousin, Mattywill, in another town while their father becomes a circuit-riding preacher.
There are problems. Mattywill is jealous of Bethany, a better reader who is asked to bring Mattywill up to sixth grade level. The man in charge of raising money for the new church and house where Bethany and her father and brother can settle is a ne'er-do-well gambling fool. There is a gang of bullies at school. All this would be trying to any child, especially one who has the extra burden of being a preacher's daughter and who must behave beyond reproach. Hence the title, "Behave Yourself, Bethany Brant."
But don't hold your breath. Bethany never even comes close to misbehaving, and therein lies the central flaw of this book.
The story becomes a tepid sojourn through the straight and narrow paths of Christian restraint--predictable and plodding. When Mattywill becomes particularly exasperating, Bethany dreams of bopping her on the head but quickly banishes such a thought: "That wouldn't have been a Christian act, but it sure would have been satisfying."
On another occasion, she worries about having to teach Mattywill table manners in addition to reading. "Mattywill didn't eat much better than the cowboys did. I hoped I wouldn't have to teach her manners, too." And the nastiest thing Bethany ever says is "Frogwarts!"
To this reviewer, the book seems to backfire in developing characters. The real heroine becomes the anti-heroine, Mattywill: Stubborn and unique, she's justifiably ticked off at her priggish cousin with her impeccable Christian manners and superior reading skills.
Bethany is interesting only because of her situation, not because of intriguing views or dramatic actions. Things simply happen to Bethany. She happens to be crowned Gem of the Ocean at the Fourth of July celebration because of an odd set of circumstances. She happens to be selected as an angel in the Christmas pageant. She happens to read well. She happens to be a preacher's kid.
But it is Mattywill who acts, who gathers strength and finally initiates a rapprochement with her cousin to become the peacemaker in the book.
"Bethany," says Mattywill, "I'm sorry I was so mean-natured to you for so long. Will you forgive me?" And how does our Christian Bethany respond? "I guess so, but don't be mean or I'll take it back." Bethany does not know it, but in that moment she commits her worst error of conduct. Frogwarts! She has misbehaved in a very un-Christian way!
Spunky is one of the most overused words in the lexicon of jacket cover copywriters, and Bethany is touted as one of the "spunkiest" and "most human" of heroines. She is not. She is a dreary little thing. On the spunkiness scale, Bethany would rate a 2. For young readers raised on the likes of Beverly Cleary's Ramona (a solid 10), this is going to be thin gruel.
There is, nevertheless, a good author's note at the end of the book, which adds to our knowledge of the historical fabric from which the story was woven. In terms of the late 19th-Century setting, Patricia Beatty has researched carefully. She is well-versed in the law, medicine and education of the period. She has created a convincing sense of place and time, if not character.