fiction favorites…Understood Betsy

understood betsy cover imageUnderstood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Oh, how she wanted Aunt Francis to take care of her! Nobody cared a thing about her! Nobody understood her but Aunt Frances! She wouldn’t go back at all to Putney Farm. She would just walk on and on till she was lost, and the night would come and she would lie down and freeze to death, and then wouldn’t Cousin Ann feel…Someone called to her, “Isn’t this Betsy?”

She looked up astonished. A young girl …stood in front of a tiny square building, like a toy house. morgan_weistling_country_schoolhouse from iamachild dot wordpress dot com“Isn’t this Betsy?” asked the young girl again. “Your Cousin Ann said you were coming to school today and I’ve been looking out for you. But I saw you going right by, and I ran out to stop you.”
“Why, where is the school?” asked Betsy, staring around for a big brick, four-story building.
The young girl laughed and held out her hand. “This is the school,” she said, “and I am the teacher, and you’d better come right in, for it’s time to begin.”

Nine-year-old Betsy is a timid, pale, wisp of a girl who has been raised by a couple of aunts since her parents died. Been mollycoddled by them, actually. Their fretting, overprotective ways have made a Nervous Nellie out of her; their compulsion to enroll her in serious, enriching activities, to oversympathize with her every teensy woe, to cosset and hover over her in concerned devotion, have produced more of an indulged pet than a vivid, growing person.

vermont farm by luigi lucioni at skinnerinc dot comSo imagine Betsy’s consternation when one of these aunties becomes ill and Betsy must be farmed out to the Vermont cousins — a hearty, pragmatic, rural family who don’t seem to understand Betsy’s delicate nature and earnest limitations at all! Why, Uncle Henry hands over the horses’ reins to her first thing, though it’s certain she’ll kill them all with her inexperience! No one helps her off with her coat. No one dotes on her. She’s expected to pitch in to all kinds of chores she’s never done before, and not given explicit instructions, but left to figure things out on her own!

Like a leggy, hothouse bean sprout moved into a cold frame, though, Betsy grows stronger, stouter; develops fortitude. An active magination and curiosity are sparked; joy and self-reliance and confidence well up. Betsy is flourishing in this healthy atmosphere, when a letter arrives from her aunt — she’s coming to take her back. What’s ahead now for Betsy?

This is an old, old book, written in 1916, but surprisingly relevant today. The author’s style is quaint, speaking directly to the reader in an old-fashioned conspiratorial tone, though this mechanism has been revived lately by such writers as Lemony Snicket, hasn’t it? Fisher’s vocabulary and the lifestyles of the characters reflect the 1900s, yet the same tug-of-war exists today between overprotected, sewing 2overindulged children and those who yearn for freedom and unstructured time to foster strong, resiliant, independent children. 

The book explores differing styles of education, both formal and informal, and astute children will ponder those variations. In an afterword in my copy of this book, Peggy Parish (the author of Amelia Bedelia and many other books) remarks: One of the most exciting discoveries for Betsy was made that first day of school. The story tells us, “She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown up.” Lovely.

We enjoyed this book when my kids were small. It’s perhaps more of a girls’ story, but there’s room for boys with wide tastes to enjoy this as well. If your kids have never read period-literature, it might catch them a little off-guard, but despite its quaintness, it’s really an excellent story for ages 8 and up. Try it as a read-aloud with capable listeners.