Friday, March 2, 2012

Understood Betsy

"Oh, he's asking for more!" cried Elizabeth Ann.

After enjoying a crop of wonderful new middle grade novels, I decided to read some classic children's fiction.  Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, published in 1917, is the delightful story of nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann. The full text (with images) can be found here or at Project Gutenberg.

Orphaned at a young age, Elizabeth Ann has been raised by her neurotic “Aunt” Frances, with whom she has an unhealthy, codependent relationship. Frances, determined to understand Elizabeth Ann thoroughly, feels it is important to praise her continually and insists on knowing her every thought. She does everything for Elizabeth, and the two of them mutually reinforce each other’s fears and foibles.

The situation changes abruptly when Frances’ mother becomes ill and must be taken to a warmer climate. Elizabeth Ann, left in the care of other relatives, is eventually sent to Vermont to stay with the practical and down-to-earth Putneys. Aunt Frances is horrified when she learns of this-- she scorns their rustic lifestyle and ‘insensitive’ childrearing practices--but she is too far away to intervene.

Life with the Putneys is, indeed, different. From their first meeting, taciturn but kindly Aunt Abigail and Uncle Henry, and their assertive adult daughter, Ann, assume that Elizabeth (whom they immediately nickname ‘Betsy’) will show independence and common sense.  Betsy gradually discovers that she is more capable than she ever suspected.

She had greatly enjoyed doing her own hair.

Starting with the ride home from the train station, when Uncle Henry hands her the reins without warning, Betsy is thrown into situations that are new to her. Through the Putneys’ artful combination of benign neglect and purposeful challenge, Betsy begins to develop self-reliance. She figures out how to get herself up in the morning, fix her hair, get her own breakfast, wash up her dishes, and walk to school on her own. School, a multi-age, individualized  classroom with peer tutoring and flexible grouping, is very different from the large city institution she is accustomed to.

Fisher’s interest in educational reform and her endorsement of Montessori methods are  evident as she recounts how Betsy learns to cook, overcomes her fear of dogs, learns to take care of kittens and younger children, becomes sturdy and healthy, and develops compassion for  those less fortunate. She develops a sense of the “realness” of history when she realizes that Aunt Abigail and Uncle Henry, now in their 70s, attended the same schoolhouse. Some readers may feel that the message is heavy-handed or overly didactic, but I did not find this to be the case. I thought the story was well-written and moving. I enjoyed the glimpses of the past, and found Betsy to be a natural, engaging, and sympathetic character. (Of course, I already have an avid interest in and strong opinions about child development, so I could be part of the choir to whom Fisher is preaching!)

Betsy shut her teeth together hard, and started across.

The author, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was born in Kansas in 1879. Her father was a professor and college president; her mother was an artist and writer.  Fisher was fluent in five languages, and received a doctorate in Romance Languages from Columbia University. After her marriage, she moved to Vermont. She worked with Maria Montessori in Rome, and was instrumental in bringing Montessori instruction to the United States. 

Besides being an activist for education reform and a prolific and bestselling author, Fisher was active in relief work in France during World War I. Eleanor Roosevelt named her one of the ten most influential women in the United States.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher died in 1958 at the age of 79.