I recently reread a book from Maud Hart Lovelace’s classic Betsy-Tacy series for girls. Mostly I was hoping to find some period music or project ideas for my next Girls Making History workshop, set in the early 1900s. What I found instead was a plot involving Syrian immigrants, a topic very much in today’s news.
In Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, three best friends who are almost 10 years old discover that on the other side of the hill where they play lives a small community of Syrian immigrants, deep in the valley and far from town. The girls had heard frightening stories about Little Syria, and about one dangerous man in particular, but they had never realized how close to home the strangers lived.
One day, the girls take a picnic lunch to the ridge overlooking Little Syria. After tucking the picnic basket into a cleft of the rocks, the girls spend time reading news clippings about the upcoming coronation of a boy king in Spain. They decide that they are all in love with him, and write him a letter expressing their desire to marry him (with their regret that they can’t because they’re not of royal blood).
Returning to get their picnic basket, Betsy, Tacy and Tib discover that it’s disappeared! One glance toward Little Syria reveals a goat running with it toward the valley. The friends chase the goat until it’s stopped by its mistress, a young girl wearing strange clothes and scolding the goat in an odd language; she is clearly from Little Syria. Immediately interested in getting to know one another, the four girls manage to break the language barrier through a bit of charade-like play, and the Syrian girl, whose name is Naifi, shares in the picnic.
The Spanish coronation, followed by a school recitation about “Queen o’ the May,” leads to a fascination with royalty and a summer conflict between the three friends and their older sisters: Each group wants to stage the coronation of its own Queen of Summer, but how could there be more than one Queen? The parents allow both groups to canvass the neighborhood for votes to determine the winning Queen. When the three friends find themselves losing the race, they gather their courage and descend into the valley to solicit votes from the Syrians.
Spoiler alert: Betsy, Tacy and Tib discover that Naifi is a real princess! Her father, who is neither frightening nor dangerous, had given up his noble title to make a better life for his family in America. When the friends urge the princess to reign over their neighborhood celebration (since they are now certain they have enough votes to win the election), the father adamantly refuses to allow it. He is determined to be a true American, and sees a display of his daughter as royalty to be inconsistent with the social equality of America.
The friends convince the father that this coronation will be a thoroughly American celebration, complete with the American flag and national anthem. The father relents, and Naifi, in full regalia, enters the world on the other side of the big hill, bringing rich color to new neighbors who warmly welcome their very own princess.
This story, based on the childhood of the author, takes place in an era when record numbers of immigrants were entering the United States, especially through the gateway of Ellis Island, adding to the cultural melting pot that became 20th century America. Its emphasis on bridge building and hospitality echoes the work of many current efforts to assist Syrians seeking refuge in a new country.
If you know of such an outreach in your area, please share the details in the comments below so that others can become involved. For those who live in the Boston area, please know that there is an initiative in Ipswich, Massachusetts, to help resettle a Syrian family there; let us know if you would like information on how to be of assistance.
And, if you or your daughter hasn’t yet read the Betsy-Tacy books, we encourage you to find them at your local library or bookstore. Get ready for a treat!