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COMMITMENTS : The Never-Ending Story : Why is it that some adults never seem to outgrow the Betsy-Tacy books? Perhaps it's because they recall a simpler era when imagination reigned supreme.

October 09, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With all due respect to Walt Disney, childhood is a magical kingdom that needs no manufactured stimuli.

Can you remember time spent scrunched on your knees, watching a small black ant climb through tall grass?

Or the moment you realized, while looking at the sky, that the clouds were actually moving? Or the first day you walked all the way to the corner, holding hands with your new best friend?

Of course not.

If you're like most people, childhood was filled with daily events so momentous that you believed you would never, ever forget them.

And, if you're like most people, you promptly forgot.

Not Maud Hart Lovelace.

She was born in 1892 in Mankato, Minn., and died in 1980, leaving behind six little-known and long-out-of-print historical novels, along with 14 children's books, called the Betsy-Tacy series, which are lightly fictionalized chronicles of her childhood and coming of age.

In the books, one a year for 14 years, Maud calls herself Betsy--an impish brown-haired girl with an unusual amount of attitude for her day. Tacy is the bashful one with long red ringlets. They are such good friends, such constant companions, that the townspeople link their two names together (Betsy-Tacy) as if it were one.

Although Betsy-Tacy (as aficionados call the series) has never been totally out of print since the first book was published in 1940, neither has it become a household name. Lovelace earned enough from her books to support an easy, if modest, lifestyle with her husband in their later years--but she never became really rich or famous.

How odd, then, that the Betsy-Tacy books have become a kind of cult treasure among thousands who have read them, including such disparate sorts as singer / actress Bette Midler and Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen.

The books have also inspired a national newsletter with 1,000 subscribers, a national Betsy-Tacy Society, a fund-raising effort to maintain the homes in Mankato where Betsy's and Tacy's real-life counterparts lived, a Betsy-Tacy chat line on the Internet and a plethora of commercial Betsy-Tacy-styled items (from lithographs and pewter figurines to cookbooks). HarperCollins is reissuing the entire series in paperback due to what editors call "moderate public demand."

*

"There are three authors whose body of work I have reread more than once in my adult life," Quindlen said at a meeting of the Betsy-Tacy Society in St. Paul last year. "They are Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Maud Hart Lovelace."

Quindlen's talk, titled "Betsy Ray, Feminist Icon," explained her fondness for the fictional heroine and her family by asking:

"Do you realize that not once, in any of the books, does any individual, male or female, suggest to Betsy that she cannot, as she so hopes to do, become a writer?

"Can anyone possibly appreciate the impact that made on a child like me, wanting it too, but seeing all around me on the bookshelves the names of men--and seeing all around me in my home the domesticated ways of women?"

Indeed, throughout the series, which starts when Maud (alias Betsy) is 5 years old, the deceptively simple plots feature parents who are positive and delightedly open to their children's initiative and creativity. Even in that small town, in that long-gone day, Betsy's parents (her father owned a shoe store, her mother raised the children) honored their offspring's individuality without ever saying so in words.

At 6, Betsy wants to climb the big hill and eat supper on the bench with her best friend, Tacy, instead of at the family table. No harm in that, her parents say, offering her a full plate. As a result, the tradition of Betsy and Tacy cloud-watching together is born.

Betsy's sister wants to become an opera singer. Why not? her parents ask themselves, already planning for voice lessons and trips to the big city.

Betsy wants to go to Europe, doesn't want to finish college, decides to switch religions, tries (and fails three times) to win an essay contest. She wins on the fourth attempt.

Through it all--from first grade to "Betsy's Wedding"--Lovelace traces the development of Betsy's character and growing sense of self-worth.

If this sounds just a little too gooey and goody-goody for the era of Mortal Kombat kids, don't be misled. A little old-fashioned goo is what's lacking in today's kiddie books, say Betsy-Tacy fans.

Suzanne Nezin, president of the new Southern California chapter of the Betsy-Tacy Society, read the books in New York as a child, then in Palm Springs, where she spent her teen years.

"I never knew my father. My mother married five times and I never really knew her either. . . . And suddenly here were these books, with a mother and a father and three daughters. I had no real-life role models for those people, so the books provided them. They were like guidebooks for my life."

Patty Warhol of Rancho Palos Verdes is editor of the quarterly Betsy-Tacy newsletter, which has subscribers on five continents.

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