Betsy Ray, BGG (before gossip girls)

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Books we missed, books we raved about, and books that have been revived in print.

Today's teenage girls may swoon over hunky vampires and snarky gossip girls, but some 60 years ago, a more wholesome character captured the imaginations of literary-minded young women. Her name was Betsy Ray, and this plucky girl growing up in a small Minnesota town at the turn of the 20th century was the star of a beloved series known as the Betsy-Tacy books. The creation of Maud Hart Lovelace, the 10-book collection still has a loyal following, including a society with a Facebook page. Ardent Betsy lovers can even visit the Mankato, Minn., houses that Lovelace fictionalized in the books. Despite this, over the years the books have fallen in and out of print. Recently, six of the volumes -- Heaven to Betsy & Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy Was a Junior & Betsy and Joe and Betsy and the Great World & Betsy's Wedding (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, $14.99 each) -- were resurrected and repackaged. The rejuvenated series comes complete with forewords by Anna Quindlen, Meg Cabot and Laura Lippman.

Over the course of these six stories, Betsy grows from a teenager with an "Ethel Barrymore droop," fussing over her freckles and the curl in her hair, to a married woman who not only cooks and cleans (if not very well), but also finds time to write. It is this latter pursuit that has turned Betsy Ray into something of a feminist icon; Betsy has been likened to everyone from Jo March to Anne of Green Gables to Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Never mind her retro advice on how to act with boys: "Just curl your hair and use a lot of perfume and act plagued when they tease you.") Icon or not, this charming Everygirl is easy to like, and readers can lose themselves in the quaintness of her old-fashioned life, where after-school activities feature banana splits and singalongs at the piano. The Betsy-Tacy books may have been written for a young-adult audience of yesteryear, but their message -- staying true to one's self no matter the circumstances -- couldn't be more universal, or current.

Also of interest

When he died last year, William F. Buckley Jr. was completing The Reagan I Knew (Basic, $15.95), an annotated collection of his letters and recorded conversations with the former president. The compilation is a mix of serious political discourse and jocular banter. (After misidentifying Buckley in front of a photographer in 1988, Reagan jokes, "Don't worry. . . . I've had him shot.")

In The Widow Clicquot (Harper Perennial, $15.99), Tilar J. Mazzeo tells the story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, a young widow and mother with little business experience who "transformed a fledgling family wine trade into one of the great champagne houses of the world."

From our previous reviews

-- Poe's Children (Anchor, $16), "a revelatory anthology" edited by Peter Straub, brings together horror stories from such familiar names as Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Dan Chaon as well as those by "rising stars" such as King's son Joe Hill. Bill Sheehan called the collection "a remarkably consistent, frequently unsettling book that does as much to blur the artificial boundary between genre fiction and 'literature' as any anthology in living memory."

-- Miriam Toews's darkly humorous novel The Flying Troutmans (Counterpoint, $14.95) centers on a ragtag cross-country trip in which a family "wanders through one comic encounter after another," Ron Charles wrote, even as the book conveys a more serious message about "loving someone who is mentally ill and standing by your responsibilities no matter what."

-- Freedom's Battle (Vintage, $17.95), a history of humanitarian intervention by Gary J. Bass, "has the force of a polemic without descending to one," Robert D. Kaplan commented.

-- In her biography Emily Post (Random House, $18), Laura Claridge shows "the ways in which a girl who just wanted to be a worthy heir to her father turned herself into one of the most powerful women in America," wrote Amanda Vaill.

-- Hometown Appetites (Gotham, $15), by Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris, pays homage to the groundbreaking food writer Clementine Paddleford, who "even piloted her own single-engine plane to sample pot roast in Pennsylvania," noted Belle Elving.

-- Ariel Sabar's family history My Father's Paradise (Algonquin, $14.95) focuses on the story of Sabar's father, a Kurdistani Jew from northern Iraq, and his "anguished mission to preserve the shards of his shattered culture," according to Donna Rifkind.

Krug is The Post's monthly paperback columnist.

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