After I read Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Home-Maker, I knew that I would be reading more of her work. I just had no idea where to start. Then, a few weeks ago, Jenny of Shelf Love wrote a lovely post about "children’s books that are about ordinary lives: no magic, no amulets, no spells, just children going about their everyday business." And that reminded me of Understood Betsy. I can remember as a child seeing this many times in the children's section of the library, but I don't think I ever even took it off the shelf. As wonderful as it was to wander around the library making my own discoveries and choices, I do wish someone had pointed me toward this book years ago.
The Betsy of the title is introduced to us as Elizabeth Ann, nine years old and an orphan. She lives with her Great-Aunt Harriet and Harriet's daughter, whom Elizabeth Ann calls Aunt Frances, somewhere in a city in middle America. The aunts, who took her in as a baby, have devoted their lives to her, particularly the unmarried Aunt Frances. She is determined to understand Elizabeth Ann by spending every minute with her and sharing every experience. The aunts wrap her up in a loving, smothering cocoon that has left her a spindly pale peaked little girl, full of fears and anxieties, with no friends her own age (rather like Rose Campbell before Uncle Alec arrives).
But when Great-Aunt Harriet develops a worrisome cough, and the doctor orders her away to a warm climate, suddenly all Aunt Frances's attention turns to her mother. And they cannot take Elizabeth Ann with them. When this book was published in 1917, perhaps its first readers would have understood Harriet's cough as tuberculosis; Elizabeth Ann has no idea and naturally feels completely abandoned. Even worse, the cousins who were to take her in have their own medical crises, and instead they have to send her on to her Putney cousins in far-away Vermont. There she is welcomed by Great-Uncle Henry, Great-Aunt Abigail, and their daughter Cousin Ann.
I had a confused idea that the title of this book was actually "Misunderstood Betsy," and that it was a Green Gables-esque adventure in which Betsy meets Vermont versions of Marilla Cuthbert and melts their cold hearts with her winning ways. Maybe that's why I never got around to reading it. What Elizabeth Ann finds instead is a warm loving home, one in which she is not coddled but encouraged to learn, to think for herself, to grow. It is easy to see in both the Putney home and the small country school she attends the Montessori ideals that Dorothy Canfield Fisher supported so strongly, which also underlie Lester Knapp's loving careful parenting in The Home-Maker.
Elizabeth Ann is at first overwhelmed with grief, with a sense of abandonment and the loss of the only life she had known. But from the moment Aunt Abigail puts a kitten in her arms, I knew she was going to be all right.
Elizabeth Ann bent her thin face over the warm furry, friendly little animal. She could not speak. She had always wanted a kitten, but Aunt Frances and Aunt Harriet and Grace had always been sure that cats brought diphtheria and tonsillitis and all sorts of dreadful diseases to delicate little girls.Watching this unnaturally delicate little Elizabeth Ann grow and blossom into Betsy is a delight. Like Maria in Penelope Lively's A Stitch in Time, though in a very different setting, she has to learn to be a child, to play, to make friends, but also to take her part in the family's life and work. There are plenty of stumbles along the way, but joys and triumphs as well, and quite an adventurous 10th birthday at a local country fair. I was reminded at times of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, in the small school house, the stories of frontier Vermont, and especially in the maple sugar candy Betsy makes in the snow (when I lived in western Massachusetts, I loved the sugaring season and quickly became addicted to the candy I'd read about for so many years). I'll have to see if my nieces have read this wonderful book. I hope they haven't outgrown its quiet magic; I certainly haven't.