Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review and Journaling

by Kiirsi Hellewell


I’m currently re-reading one of my very favorite series of books, the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace.  If you haven’t ever heard of these books, you’re not alone—for some reason they’re not very well-known, even though they are ten wonderful novels by a terrific writer about turn-of-the-century Midwest America.



Maud Hart Lovelace

Every year or two when I read these books again, I’m amazed all over again at how good they are, and also mystified about why they’re not more popular.  I love the Anne of Green Gables series and these books are easily just as good.  What’s more, Ms. Lovelace packs every single chapter with delicious and delightful references to styles, popular songs, slang, and customs, painting such a picture of American life in 1900-Minnesota that leaves you longing to turn back time and go there yourself.


What’s really amazing is that much like Little House on the Prairie, these books were written much later in the author’s life—she published the first one in 1940—and she relied heavily on her copious journals, which she burned after writing the last book.  And also like Laura Ingalls, the books are almost autobiographical—though they are fiction, most of the characters and places in “Deep Valley” are based on actual people Ms. Lovelace knew and loved.  She herself is the protagonist, “Betsy.”  The books start with Betsy at age 5 and grow with her through the years of high school and beyond, all the way to her married life.


The amazing detail would not be possible without her journals.  One reason I love these books so much, I think, is that they are so real.  They are some of the few books I’ve read where historical detail is accomplished not by vast amounts of research, but because the author actually lived in the time period and kept a record of the changing hair and clothing styles, music, games, boys she liked and crowd of friends, and everything else.  This time through the books for me has been really fun because I’ve started researching clothes, hair, and songs from a hundred years ago so I can get an even better picture of life back then.



Cover of the October re-issue

You can even go visit Mankato, Minnesota (the “Deep Valley” of the books) and find “Betsy’s” actual house, along with many more historical landmarks from the book.  The Betsy-Tacy Society is actively restoring and preserving them.


As I’ve read the books this time through I’ve thought a great deal about keeping journals.  I kept a journal every single day while I was a missionary in Texas several years ago, but journal entries before and after that time are hit-and-miss at best.  I know there’s not enough detail in my journals to base a series of historical books on. 


What about you?  Do you keep a journal?  Do you ever use it in your writing?  I think one thing my journals would be good for is not so much the historical side, but more the feelings and emotions I had around certain events in my life. 


If you’re interested in reading these terrific books, try the library; also, Harper Collins is re-issuing the last 6 this fall with the lovely original covers (I failed to mention how sweet and beautiful the inside chapter illustrations are: )


Betsy as a senior in high school

In all the years I’ve loved these books, since I was about 6, I was never lucky enough to have my own copies.  They’ve been in and out of print.  This time I can’t wait to buy them.

Kiirsi Hellewell lives in the Salt Lake valley.  Not content with merely being a hit-and-miss journal-writer, she’s also a hit-and-miss blogger.  You can find her blog here.  She’s currently enjoying author Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Write 15 minutes a day every day in August” challenge.


Scott said...

I've found it helpful to keep project journals while writing, inspired somewhat by Steinbeck's working journals. They've helped me stay on track and make me feel I'm accountable to someone or something for writing regularly.

Unfortunately, I've never been very good at keeping journals for very long. And that includes these working journals that I find tremendously helpful.

As far as personal journals go, I've tried at key points in my life, but I always got bored with them and started making stuff up. Even missionary journals "degraded" into tales about fictional characters and my reactions to them.

Paul West said...

Fascinating. I too want to write a historical novel set around the turn of the century, but don't have a lot of background material. I will try to find Ms. Lovelace's books in the library.

Thanks for the tip.