Saturday, June 6, 2009

Second Place Essay!

Here is the second place essay, a lovely tribute to the best older sister in all of fiction - sorry Meg and Mary. The picture above is not actually Julia, but google's closest thing. (Sorry, can't get to the scanner and the internet is Julia-deprived.) The authoresses of the essays you have been enjoying will be announced at the convention and the first place essay will be read then, as well.

And now --

Julia Ray: Singer, Sister, and Ever-So-Competent Hair Stylist:
The Woman in the Betsy-Tacy Series That I Most Admire

While reading the Betsy-Tacy series, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib materialize as the obvious stars of the novels. Although these characters all showcase their own wit, charm and winning personalities, another female character has resonated with me on a most profound level. Julia, eldest Ray daughter and vocalist extraordinaire, is one of the most intriguing and complex characters — albeit overlooked — in the series, and her grand accomplishments should be considered more deeply. Maud Hart Lovelace’s early descriptions of Julia in Betsy-Tacy and Betsy-Tacy and Tib are few and far between; indeed, she is first viewed merely as the older, wiser sister: eight years old to Betsy’s six. As the characters grow older, Lovelace develops Julia’s character further, and readers benefit from meeting an intelligent, worldly young woman. For a more in-depth study, this analysis will focus solely on Julia’s presence in 1945’s Heaven to Betsy. In this book in particular, Julia’s magnetism as a character secures her position as one of the most inimitable characters in the series.
One of the first and most interesting passages of the entire series relates to Julia and transpires in Heaven to Betsy. Julia exclaims, “Bettina, I love the Episcopal Church. I want to be an Episcopalian…Just because Papa and Mamma are Baptists is no reason I should be a Baptist. People are different. I’m myself” (p. 99). For a girl of 16, especially in the early 1900s, this statement is a bit radical. Yet, how often is religion a hot topic among America’s youth? How often do people question their systems of beliefs? These are in fact common concerns, and Lovelace brings them to light with Julia’s early questioning. It presages later young adult fiction, like Judy Blume’s 1970 masterpiece, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which protagonist Margaret Simon grapples with a choice between Christianity and Judaism. Today, Blume’s book is often banned in schools across the United States due to its brazen references to religion, among other elements. However, Lovelace’s attribution of these feelings of confusion to Julia at an earlier time in American fiction is truly remarkable. Julia strengthens as a character with her Episcopalian outburst and stands in stark contrast to the sometimes frivolous Betsy.
Throughout the series, Julia is noted for her extraordinary talent as a singer. The reader first gets a taste of what is to come with a passage about Chauncey Olcott’s performance in Deep Valley. The entire Ray family attends the concert. Upon leaving, they are all glowing with happiness from the wonderful performance that they just experienced. For Julia, though, the concert was not so engaging. She coolly tells Betsy, “Of course, that isn’t great music.” An outraged Betsy exclaims, “Why, the idea! If that isn’t great singing, I’d like to know what is.” Julia answers confidently, “Grand Opera.” “Like that Pugliacci you sing?” Betsy questions. Julia replies, “Of course. But Chauncey Olcott is a sweet old thing” (p. 118). Betsy is aghast at Julia’s snub to Olcott, whom Betsy deems “the finest singer in the world.” This demonstrates an essential element of Julia’s personality. Whether it is a rebuttal of the Baptist religion or a singer’s talents, Julia knows what she likes, and she experiences no reservations about speaking her mind. Granted, there are many flighty teenage girls who might defend their favorite singers from time to time; however, when Julia abhors Chauncey Olcott, she does so with such grace and maturity that one could never question her judgment. Julia may have been only 16 at this point, but her wisdom exceeds her years.
Throughout the series, Betsy undoubtedly strikes a chord with most readers. She is the most flawed, and certainly the most lovable, character in the book. Nevertheless, Julia’s aspirations make her more admirable. While Betsy clings to high school — and the Sunday night lunches, outings with the Crowd, and holidays that go along with it — Julia longs for the Great World. In Heaven to Betsy, the reader learns that while Julia used to pal around with Katie Kelly, she has become less interested in high school friendships as the years have passed. Julia even grows more independent in terms of boys. After a quarrel with a beau, Fred, Julia refuses to accept his apology. Betsy pleads with Julia to forgive the boy: “This is pretty hard on Fred. He’s going to flunk everything, because he’s worrying about you.” In response, Julia “settles down to her Cicero” and reasons, “Very foolish of him” (p. 262). Certainly, Julia’s independence reaches epic proportions when she actually departs for the Great World. Even at 16 years old, though, Julia does not get swept up into dances and other typical high school fare. As Betsy describes her, “Julia loved the Great World. She loved to sing, to act, to study, out in the Great World. The Great World was more real and much more important than the Deep Valley High School” (p. 179). This life perspective is quite rebellious of Julia, particularly for the time. Rather than playing her music, it would surely be simpler to fantasize over handsome boys and gobble down sundaes at Heinz’s. Perhaps most importantly, when Julia continues to forge her own path, she does so with virtually no snobbery or condescension.
Finally, in an examination of the Betsy-Tacy series, a character’s ties back to Betsy are innumerably important. Julia flawlessly fills the role of Betsy’s older sister. Whether she is happily entertaining Betsy’s friends at the piano or adeptly twisting Betsy’s hair into perfect pompadours, Julia’s love for “Bettina” is always present. In the beginning of Chapter Two, the reader learns: “[Betsy] admired Julia without resentment. During the last year all big-sister, little-sister friction had miraculously melted away” (p. 25). Indeed, Betsy is in a vulnerable position as the middle sister, but seldom, if ever, does the reader witness any disparaging comments from Julia. One of the most loving displays of sisterhood occurs after an evening of skating, when Betsy witnesses Tony flirting and skating with Bonnie. As she remains in a state of depression the next morning, she wants to do nothing more than lie in bed. Julia walks in Betsy’s room, assesses the situation at hand and remarks, “It must be your ankle…I’ll explain to Papa about your ankle and bring you some breakfast” (p. 238). Naturally, Julia understands the real reason behind Betsy’s despondency, but in true Julia fashion, she does not say a word. Later, Julia returns to “beautify” Betsy by fixing her hair, rubbing a chamois skin across her face, and administering an impeccable manicure. Julia’s eagerness to help Betsy prevails as a significant example of sisterhood. In literature and in the media, quintessential big sisters are bossy women who tease and fool their younger siblings. Instead of subscribing to this view, Lovelace paints Julia as a compassionate young woman whom any girl would be fortunate to call a sister.
Julia Ray is based off Kathleen Palmer Hart, Lovelace’s older sister. Today’s readers will never know Kathleen; thus, they will never know if Kathleen’s persona really matched Julia’s benevolence and charisma. Luckily, readers can turn to any of the 10 Betsy-Tacy books and receive a full dose of the fascinating, multi-faceted character of Julia. Through her confidence toward her religious convictions and musical preferences and her selfless behavior toward Betsy, Julia is the most admirable female character in the series. As Lovelace writes in Heaven to Betsy, 16-year-old Julia has a sort of “diamond-bright precocity” (p. 25). Throughout the rest of the series, Julia’s diamond shines brighter than all the rest.

*The page numbers that were referenced in this essay can be found in the 2000 edition of Heaven to Betsy.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. A lovely case made for a lovely girl! Bravo!

  3. What a wonderful essay! I hope to meet the author! Grace M.