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Children's Literature 32 (2004) 84-111

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Diversity in Deep Valley:

Encountering the "Other" in the Betsy-Tacy Series

The Deep Valley of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books, based on the author's own hometown of Mankato, Minnesota, in the early years of the twentieth-century, is as idealized an American small town as one can find in children's literature. Mankato is now the site of annual pilgrimages by Betsy-Tacy readers who yearn to sit on the bench outside of Betsy's and Tacy's houses and to walk up their "Big Hill." Betsy-Tacy fans recreate the Crowd's evenings of singing around the piano and attempt to fix Mr. Ray's famous onion sandwiches—the simpler pleasures of bygone days. But it is worth noting that, if Deep Valley is a quintessential American small town, it is not culturally homogenous or without enriching diversity.

For one, there is a strong German-American presence in the town. Betsy's friend Tib Muller is of German-American ancestry and sprinkles her speech with German phrases ("Nicht wahr?"); Betsy studies German in high school and is proud to be able to sing "Kind, du kannst tanzen" to a German farm family in Betsy and Joe; during Betsy's sophomore year in high school (Betsy in Spite of Herself), she travels to heavily German Milwaukee to spend Christmas with Tib's extended family and experience their Old World customs and values; and her encounter with the Germanic world is deepened further when she lives in Munich for several months during a year abroad.

Nor is all the cultural diversity in Deep Valley European in source. Adjacent to Deep Valley is the "colony" of "Little Syria," founded by recent Syrian immigrants to America, as presented most centrally in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill and Emily of Deep Valley. (The Betsy-Tacy Companion explains that "The Syrians of Mankato were actually Lebanese, since at the end of the last century, Lebanon was a part of Syria"; Lovelace's Syrians were from "the Lebanon district" [65].) Betsy, Tacy, and Tib befriend a little Syrian girl, Naifi, in the first book and make an unauthorized visit to her community; in the second book, Emily similarly befriends a group of Syrian children and petitions the Deep Valley school board to create Americanization classes for the families of Little Syria. [End Page 84]

This paper examines the presence and portrayal of these two groups of "foreigners" in the Betsy-Tacy series, arguing that Lovelace has understood what it is to be an American broadly enough that the boundaries of Deep Valley can expand to include both its German American members and the Syrian Americans who live "over the big hill" from the rest of Deep Valley, but become at least partly integrated within it. Lovelace understands Americanization, at least overtly, as involving commitment to American ideals and political principles rather than conformity to Anglo American cultural norms, so that, at least in theory, Deep Valley's "foreigners" can be welcomed and celebrated as true Americans. At the same time, however, the political and the cultural are shown to be so intertwined that "foreigners" must end up sacrificing at least some of their cultural difference in order to belong fully as citizens of Deep Valley.

German Americans in the Betsy-Tacy Books

German Americans enter the Betsy-Tacy books through Betsy and Tacy's friendship with Tib Muller. Tib's German ancestry is not pronounced in the early books in the series, but does reveal itself in numerous small ways. The Mullers' middle-aged hired "girl" Matilda, first introduced in Betsy-Tacy and Tib, wears her hair in graying yellow braids wrapped around her head (a Germanic-seeming hairstyle), frequently serves the children coffee cake as a snack (the kuchen that Betsy rhapsodizes about when she visits Milwaukee), and exclaims "Gott in himmel!" when agitated (48). Tib's Aunt Dolly responds to Betsy's compliment on her prettiness by saying "'That's because I had a grandmother who...