Meeting Betsy, Tacy, and Tib was fun, even as an adult, but even more fun for me was introducing my girls to them. I looked at them as fun stories for young girls, ones that I even enjoy reading, but nothing that really touched me emotionally. However, reading Emily of Deep Valley has convinced me that Maud Hart Lovelace deserves a place at the top of my own personal list of favorite authors–right up there beside L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott as an author who created a coming-of-age story that had me nodding my head in recognition from beginning to end.
Emily Webster’s story is a simple one. She’s a shy girl whose only claim to fame is that she excels at debate. Content to stay in her own little world, she’s also an orphan who has been raised by her grandparents and is now the caregiver for her elderly grandfather. The novel opens with the approach of Emily’s high school graduation, and she feels lost. Her “gang” (of which she is really only an honorary member, thanks to her popular cousin Annette) is about to scatter to the four winds as they leave Deep Valley for colleges near and far. Rather than succomb to the doldrums, however, Emily decides to make a life for herself–a life than includes caring for Grandfather, yes, but also a whole score of other things–dancing lessons, intellectual self-improvement through book studies and reading to her grandfather, and involvement in the lives of Syrian refugees just across the slough from their little cottage. What she discovers is that life without Annette and company isn’t so bad after all; in fact, it might just be good, even by their standards!
There is so much practical wisdom packed into this smoothly written novel, but it never lapses into didacticism. Instead, we see the truth in what Emily learns about life simply through her (and maybe our own, if we’re old enough 😉 ) experiences. Emily engages in self-talk like this throughout the novel:
“Now, I’m not going to let this get me down. I’m not made that way. Thank God, I have a backbone, and a good stiff one, too. . .” (97)
Although she is prone to depression, she rises above it and creates a meaningful existence for herself. As someone who has to talk myself out of the doldrums occasionally, I love this–especially because it works for Emily! As Mitali Perkins writes in the foreward to this story,
Somewhere in the middle of the book, Emily begins to ‘muster her wits and stand in her own defense.’ I can, too, the reader thinks. (ix)
I have to admit that my favorite part about this story is the romantic element. (Warning! Spoilers ahead!) I loved reading this part of Emily’s story because it reminds me so much of own. I, too, was an awkward teenager, known mostly for her good grades and excellence at most academic endeavors. Like Emily, I was on the periphery of most crowds. Like Emily, I had my crushes (‘though I was pretty dedicated, if only in my mind, to a few fellas), only to see the guy ride off into the sunset with someone more skilled at flirting and small talk and just being a “typical” teenage girl than I was. So when Jed Wakeman makes his appearance in Emily of Deep Valley, my heart thrilled. Here was a young man worthy of Emily’s affection! I loved reading of Emily’s slow awakening to Jed’s virtues (and the even slower realization of the vices of the arrogant and demeaning Don, her high school crush). When Annette questions Emily about Jed and Emily insists, “We’re just friends,” I laughed sheepishly to myself. You see, I used to say the very same thing about Steady Eddie, almost up until he asked me to marry him! In the words of my father, “She sure is spending a lot of time with her friend!” 😉 (If you want to know more about how Steady Eddie won my heart, you can read a little bit more about our story here. I say this not to be self-promotional, but instead to point back to what I consider the biggest evidence of God’s hand in my life.)
I love this story, and I offer it as an antidote to what is cynical and pessimistic in so many stories for young adults today. Highly, Highly Recommended. (Harper, 1950)