Book Review: Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace

An old-timey story with surprisingly modern importance

If your daughter hasn’t read the Betsy-Tacy series yet, go out and buy them right now.  Don’t even ask, just buy the whole set.  It’s a charming series, based on the author’s real life, of best friends growing up in the small town of Deep Valley, Minnesota, in the early 20th century.  Follow Betsy and Tacy from Betsy’s fifth birthday party, through all their school years, and into the first years of Betsy’s married life.  The books age along with the reader, each one increasing in length and vocabulary, so it’s an excellent way for readers to stretch.  They aren’t quite as famous as Anne of Green Gables or the American Girls series, but they have a deeply devoted fan base.

The third book in the series is Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.  I know, I know, it sounds very Dick-and-Jane.  But it’s really a coming-of-age story, and the Big Hill is the symbol of their growing maturity.  Betsy, Tacy, and their best friend Tib are about to turn ten years old, which takes on monumental importance for them.  “It’s the beginning of growing up,” they insist.  This is the first book where the girls start to look outside themselves, to learn about other people and see things from another point of view.

When the trio take their picnic lunch over the Big Hill behind their homes, they discover a colony of Syrian refugees.  Suddenly this antiquated story has a very modern application for the reader.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib befriend a young Syrian girl, Naifi.  Despite the language barrier, they learn about Naifi’s native clothing and food.  They learn how gender and education play a major role in the Syrian family life.  They are fascinated by the cultural differences between their Midwestern Victorian lives and these immigrants.

There is an undercurrent of danger in Little Syria, though.  The girls have heard tales of hate crimes and an old Syrian man with a knife chasing a local boy.  The founder of the colony resents the cold shoulder the townspeople give the Syrians.  The trio witness bullying at their school and what happens to those who stand up for the Syrians.  And their families are horrified at the thought of the girls in “that awful place.”  The girls try to reconcile these prejudices with their first-hand experiences.

Perhaps your daughter is facing the same concerns.  Children hear more than we give them credit for, and lately they’ve been hearing a lot about immigration, Syrian refugees, closed borders, and how to deal with “the stranger in our midst.”  Your daughter might be comforted to learn that these issues have been faced before, by girls just like them.

Ultimately, it is small acts of friendship and sisterhood that tip the scales.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib develop a new understanding and appreciation of patriotism.  And the Syrians find their place in Deep Valley.

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There is another book in the series that revolves around the Syrian community.  It’s an off-shoot of the Betsy storyline.  Emily graduates high school (a few years behind Betsy’s crowd, so she doesn’t appear in their regular books).  Unable to attend college, the orphan girl feels isolated in her lonely house with only her grandfather for company.  She befriends a young Syrian boy and realizes that the Syrians are just as isolated as she is.  They badly need education, citizenship training, and friendship so they can integrate into the larger community.  Can shy little Emily take on the prejudices of an entire town?

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