Many people have never heard of Mankato, Minn. and even fewer know of “Betsy-Tacy.” For a long time, even I, who recently returned from a pilgrimage to Mankato, was unfamiliar with the place. To me, it was Deep Valley, the near-mythical town filled with friendship, family and imagination.
When I first started reading the “Betsy-Tacy” series, I didn’t realize the books were based on real people and places. Seven-year-olds don’t tend to read the “About the Author” on the inside back jacket.
At some point in the 1990s, I came to know that Betsy herself was the author — aka Maud Hart Lovelace — and that she wove the series from her own childhood, young adulthood and, in the final segment, her early married life.
This elicited confused emotions. On the one hand, how amazing — they’re real! On the other hand, I learned of plot points — extremely significant ones — that were fabricated. Either way, it became a dream to make a Betsy-Tacy pilgrimage.
Luckily for me, in the ensuing years, the Betsy-Tacy Society, was established in the late ‘90s. It purchased the childhood homes of Betsy and Tacy, transforming them into museums, complete with maps of the real-life locations of friends and schools.
The society’s commitment to preserving and sharing Lovelace’s legacy meant that last month I had the almost surreal pleasure of walking through Betsy’s home, refurbished meticulously, with inspiration taken from the original Lois Lenski illustrations. Here’s where Baby Margaret was born! Here’s where the ‘Everything Pudding’ debacle occurred!
Beyond the individual sights, it was the place itself. The perspective, the neighborhood boundaries are conveyed so accurately in Lovelace’s retelling that I truly felt I had stepped into the pages.
Of course, even before my visit to Mankato, I knew that Lovelace was a brilliant storyteller. After all, it’s a rare writer to whose works readers return time and again.
But ironically, it was seeing the differences between “Deep Valley” and “Mankato” that really drove home Lovelace’s talent, despite my fears that the reality wouldn’t live up to the written word.
Lovelace wasn’t writing an autobiography. She was writing a narrative of childhood, of family, of relationships, of dreams, of disappointments. The changes she made — from the small ones in the earlier books to more shocking ones later in the series — helped weave a more cohesive, thematic story.
Standing in her footsteps, at the top of Hill Street, I could see and feel for myself the magic of Deep Valley.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com
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