When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does. — Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail

Sometimes I tell people that the most important parts of who I am today can be traced back to a series of books my father read to me when I was a child. Because of these books I traveled to Europe, became Episcopalian, wanted to be a writer, loved suffragettes, tended to invite large crowds of people over for “Sunday night lunch,” and looked for a man who was TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome).

The Betsy-Tacy books, written by Maud Hart Lovelace in the mid-twentieth century, begin in 1897 when Betsy Ray is five and a new family moves in across the street in Deep Valley, Minnesota. Betsy meets Tacy, one of the many Irish-Catholic children in that new neighbor family, and they become best friends. Later the blonde, German-American TibInstead of teaching Betsy to fear the unknown, [her father] taught her to embrace it. joins their crew, and the books follow the girls’ adventures in growing up from age five to Betsy’s Wedding, nearly twenty years later.

The third book in the series, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, instilled in me a love for exploration and new cultures. It’s probably why I moved to Southeast Asia and became an ESL teacher after college. It’s probably why I started crying in the gym today when I saw on the television screen above the elliptical machine that the governor of my state doesn’t want to let any Syrian refugees resettle here.

Let me explain.

In the book, Betsy and Tacy plan to crown Tib Queen of the May, but their big sisters want to crown another girl queen. A bitter fight ensues, but Betsy’s father has a plan: the girls may canvas the town for votes.  Whichever queen gets the most votes wins.

After a full day of gathering signatures, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are too far behind to catch up.  That’s when Betsy remembers a girl they met on the Big Hill behind her house. They had met Naifi when her goat stole their picnic basket several weeks before.  Naifi didn’t speak any English, but they invited her to join their picnic and taught each other new words. Betsy proposes that they go over the Big Hill into Little Syria, Naifi’s neighborhood, and get votes there. (I distinctly remember riding my bike through a ditch into the next neighborhood over – without telling my parents – and thinking I was very like Betsy going into Little Syria.)

Their solution only makes things more complex, though: no one knows how to read or count the Syrian names, written in Arabic, and Betsy’s family is concerned that she (at ten years old) went to Little Syria alone. But Betsy protests that she was perfectly safe.  “It isn’t awful at all.  It’s a lovely place… The people gave us raisins and figs.”  She tells about the hubble-bubble pipe Naifi’s grandfather had, his red cap with a tassel, the goat, the way that Naifi took them into every one of the seventeen Syrian houses, where they saw people drinking coffee, embroidering, and playing the munjaira, a long reed flute.

Her parents agree that she was safe there.  But the girls still can’t agree on who will be Queen of the May.  Again, Betsy’s father has an idea. He’s just been talking with Mr. Meecham, the landlord who owns most of the houses in Little Syria.

“Mr. Meecham and I,” he began, “started talking about his neighbors. He’s interested in them, and no wonder.  They come from a very interesting country.  You can read about their country in the Bible. The Deep Valley Syrians are Christians, but most Syrians are Mohammedans. Syria is under the control of the Turks, and the Turks are Mohammedans too. A good many of the Christian Syrians are coming to America these days. And they come for much the same reason that our Pilgrim fathers came.  They want to be free from oppression and religious persecution. We ought to honor them for it.”

Betsy’s father suggests that the girls crown Naifi Queen of the May, explaining that in Syria, she was an emeera, a princess. The girls, thrilled, agree.

I’ve been thinking of Mr. Ray the past few days.  Bob Ray, a middle-class Baptist shoe salesman in a small town in Minnesota, set an example for me and for his children that I’ve never forgotten. Instead of teaching Betsy to fear the unknown, he taught her to embrace it. He educated her about the history, geography, and religion of their new neighbors, and he encouraged her to make friends with them. He honored their immigrant neighbors and understood his own similarity to them. He extended hospitality and respect.

It’s been more than a hundred years since Betsy met Naifi. Once again, under even more harrowing circumstances, Syrian refugees seek asylum in America, and I find myself wishing for governors who have the same convictions that Mr. Ray had: belief that love is stronger than fear, trust that the US government screens incoming immigrants effectively, certainty that hospitable actions are the Christian’s calling.

I find myself wishing for more, too: not just a vague welcome, but a specific one.  I want to welcome them with affordable housing, entry-level jobs, and well-stocked resettlement agencies. I want to welcome them with friendships that will last beyond what is easy and convenient.

Tonight I finished reading Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill to my kids, who are 4 and 6. They were disappointed to hear that Naifi won’t appear in any of the rest of the books in the series, so I suggested we write our own.  “Yes!” my daughter Rosie replied. “Let’s call it ‘Naifi and the New Friend.’”

All I can hope is that the stories I’m reading her now will help her grow into the kind of person who will be that new friend to the refugee. All I can hope is that we’ll all be a bit more like Betsy Ray and her dad, fearless and listening and loving our neighbors.


3 Comments

  1. Looks like it’s time to get the Betsy-Tacy books back out! The whole encounter with the Syrian neighborhood really does offer some insight for children and adults alike. Thank you so much for the article.

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