By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — With wide eyes and smiling faces, Christina Dudley and her two daughters stood on Betsy’s porch, absorbed their surroundings and asked questions as varied as the flavors in Betsy, Tacy and Tib’s everything pudding.
Looking down the street, they asked where Tib’s house is and where Mrs. Benson lived. Pointing up toward the “big hill,” also known as Sumner Hill, they asked about Prospect Heights. There were questions about the bench perched on the side of the hill and whether, if you climbed to the ridge above, you could really see Tinkomville, the James Avenue neighborhood called “Little Syria” in Lovelace’s Betsy and Tacy books.
Bob Brown had an answer for almost every question. The few he didn’t know were answered a short time later by his wife, Susan, after she checked a history book. The Browns met the Dudleys Monday morning and provided a private tour of the local Betsy-Tacy Society’s gems, the real-life homes of Maud Hart Lovelace, also known as Betsy, and Frances Kenney, Lovelace’s best childhood friend and the inspiration for Tacy.
“How many times do you get to go and stand inside a book?” Dudley said, explaining the tour had been well worth the trip from her home in Bellevue, Wash.
The Dudleys could have spent their spring break vacation on a crowded beach in California or Florida, standing in line at Disneyland or throwing the dice and hoping for nice weather at Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. Christina Dudley opted, instead, for a trip to Deep Valley, the Mankato-influenced place Lovelace created for her Betsy and Tacy books.
Her suggestion for a literary trip received mixed reviews from her three children. Lucy, 9, loved the idea. Holly, 13, had to be bribed with a side trip to the Mall of America. Jackson, 11, said he had no interest in joining the rest of them on a “girl book” trip and stayed at home.
Dudley said she’s hoping to start a tradition that will include more trips based on favorite books.
“I’ve been a lifelong voracious reader and a recent wannabe writer like Betsy, so literary tourism is right up my alley,” Christina Dudley said. “Plus I’ve given talks on topics like ‘Turning Your Kids into Book Lovers’ at moms’ groups. It’s amazing how much fun Betsy and her friends had without any electronics or even TV or radio.
“I think it’s still possible to raise kids who have imaginations, and instilling book love is a vital part of that. Literary tourism is one tool in the toolbox.”
Dudley and her daughters spent Saturday and Sunday morning visiting landmarks in the Twin Cities, including Fort Snelling. In addition to writing the popular Betsy-Tacy children’s books, Lovelace also wrote Early Candlelight, a historical novel set at Fort Snelling during the 1830s.
They switched gears to “Little House on the Prairie” and left Sunday for Walnut Grove, where they toured the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Museum Sunday afternoon. The Betsy-Tacy Society agreed to send Bob and Susan Brown over for a private tour of Betsy and Tacy’s houses Monday morning.
Christina Dudley said they enjoyed the museum in Walnut Grove, but visiting it wasn’t the same as actually standing in the setting for Lovelace’s books.
“I was born in Indiana and lived in California when I was a kid,” she said. “I remember going to the library and finding the Betsy-Tacy books and reading them all. Then I reread them as an adult when I had daughters.
“I’ve always kept the idea of coming here in the back of my mind. I looked at the Betsy-Tacy Society’s website and was crushed that they weren’t open. So I called and emailed and begged and they set up a tour for us. We’ve been making lists of questions ever since.”
Susan Orchard, operations and outreach coordinator for the Betsy-Tacy Society, said Dudley is one of many people who make tour requests each year. A visit already has been planned for later this year for four women who are graduating from college. When they met as new roommates at the start of their college careers, they figured out they were all fans of the Betsy-Tacy books. They’ve been roommates all four years and wanted a way to seal their friendship before they go in different directions.
“We have more that come from out of state than from in state,” she said. “They come from all over: Boston, Florida, Texas, Colorado, California. We had a girl from Seattle a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s amazing how connected they are to these books. They come to Minneapolis for business and, when they realize they’re so close to the Betsy-Tacy houses, they drive down here.”
Susan Brown said many Mankatoans might be surprised about what a draw the houses are for tourists.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “This is a destination place. People want to come here and see if it’s really how they pictured it in the books.”