Thank you DilDeewana for giving me permission to write about the Betsy-Tacy series! And thank you My Own Mind for putting together how Betsy and Leslie Knope have the same romance.
The Betsy-Tacy series is really unique for how it grows with the characters. The three volume novel structure that takes our heroine from a young girl to a married woman is normal. Or Harry Potter that goes from 11 to 18, less common but not unheard of. The Betsy-Tacy series goes from 5 to 25, a really REALLY long period. And the content of the books does as well, the first books are very simple straightforward stories of little girls going to the circus. And the last book is a complicated consideration of marriage, war, infertility, everything.
What’s really special with this is that we get to see our heroine and her two best friends grow and change as the world pressures them. They are bright brave smart fun little girls. And then they get older and start to worry about how they look, and about boys, and about other things. The pressure of social expectation and adult worldly problems molds them and changes them, but the original personalities remain.
Betsy is our heroine, from a nice stable family with a big sister she idolizes, and a younger sister she babies. She likes to read, she likes to write, she likes to learn things and challenge herself and just be smart. Her best friend is Tacy, from a very large family, quiet and steady and unnoticed by most people. And their shared best friend is Tib, pretty blonde and perky and a little spoiled, only girl in a family of boys. We see all three of them as little girls when life is easy, Betsy can read books all the time and love school, Tacy can spend most of her time at home or with a few close friends, and Tib can laugh and talk to strangers. And then they grow up, and suddenly that behavior isn’t okay any more. Tacy has to pretend to like parties and dances, Tib has to tone herself down, and Betsy can’t be “smart” any more.
This is growing up for women, going from the freedom of childhood to the restrictions of expectations as an adult. The high school years are growing pains as you figure out what the world is going to make you give up and what you will be allowed to keep. In this series, the radical ending is that the three little girls grow up, lose their way, and then firmly come back to themselves. Tib graduates and goes to work. A working woman in the 1910s is remarkable, and a working woman who dates widely, dresses pretty, and flirts outrageously is revolutionary. But she was a fearless little girl so she is a fearless young woman. Tacy graduates and almost immediately marries an older man and becomes a wife and mother. She didn’t have to change for him, she didn’t have to cut her hair or dress and act modern, she found someone who loved her just as she was and she got married at 18 and had the life she wanted. And then there’s Betsy. After pretending to be dumb and pretty off and on through high school, she set that aside and went to college and planned a career as a writer, even though it wasn’t the “girly” thing to do.
Tacy gets her husband as kind of a “reward”, she never managed to be the flirty datey girl everyone said she should be, but she ended up with someone who loved her just as she was, kind of proof that she didn’t have to change to get a man. Tib doesn’t get a man at all, makes her life as she wants it. But for Betsy, for the A Student girl who is suddenly ashamed to be smart, it is the boy who appreciates her who helps her learn to appreciate herself again.
Okay, now I’m gonna talk about Leslie Knope!!! Leslie Knope is the lead character in the TV show Parks and Recreation. She was original supposed to be the butt of all the jokes, the overly serious small town bureaucrat who had no idea how she appeared to others. But the show shifted pretty quickly to realizing this character isn’t actually funny, she is admirable. The smart hardworking A Student kind of woman is someone you make fun of because she makes you feel bad about yourself, makes you feel lazy and inferior and dumb, but that’s just mean and not funny. So Parks and Recreation switched from making fun of her to sort of making fun of the people who make fun of her, who think it isn’t “cool” to care. The show builds a world in which we see how difficult it is for Leslie to love herself because no one else seems to love her like she is, because they are FOOLS. Her relationships don’t work out, she keeps blaming herself. And then it all comes together with the introduction of the character Ben Wyatt. This is someone who is as smart as her, as ambitious as her, and who loves all the things about her that other people have told her she has to hide. He likes that she is hardworking, a perfectionist, ambitious, will always speak out and speak her mind. They fall in love partly because they really challenge each other and they both enjoy being challenged.
This is the story that the Betsy-Tacy books tell very very slowly over the 4 high school books. In high school, Betsy meets Joe. He is smart, really smart. At the same time she is tempted to start letting school slide because smart girls are threatening, this guy shows up who challenges her in class, gives her openings she can’t resist to fight it out with him. He is what keeps drawing her back to that part of herself, always in the background as that challenge to keep her working and planning and ambitious. If Joe is going to enter the writing contest and get published while still in high school and impress all the teachers, by golly Betsy is going to also. Without Joe, Betsy could have let herself slide, could have lost that part of herself.
In the 4th year of high school, after being friends and going to dances together but always keeping a distance, suddenly Joe and Betsy give in and are completely and totally in love. At which point we learn that for Joe, Betsy was that thing that kept him going too. He knew she was the only other person in school anywhere close to as smart as him. So he decided to use her, he picked her out as the measure he would balance himself against. For 4 years, he needed her to stay working and ambitious and tough because it would be what kept him tough. And at the same time he had to resist falling in love with her, because of course he would fall in love with the smartest girl in school. What could be better than that?
While many books are the fantasy of the perfect life you never had, the Betsy-Tacy books are the story of the love story that the author had for real. And the proof of that is in the existence of the books themselves, written over many years with the encouragement of her husband. She didn’t meet her husband until she was an adult, but he definitely challenged her. They were both hardworking successful writers their whole marriage, neither of them working more or less than the other. So when she writes about her fictional self in high school trying to figure out how to be smart and ambitious but also “girly”, she moved her husband back to that time, wished that she had met him even younger and learned to love herself through his love at an even earlier age.
At least, that’s how I see it 🙂
How do you see the Betsy-Tacy books? Or Leslie Knope? Or just in general the challenge of being the A Student girl who has to find the guy who loves her for that?