Understood Betsy is another one of those books that I remember finding in a plain, hardback edition in the children’s room of the Chesapeake Public Library. As I recall, I didn’t know anything about the book except its title: I don’t think they kept the dust covers on the books in those days, and if they did, that one was long gone.
Like so many books I read when I was a kid, I had trouble understanding the setting of the book in terms of time. I really didn’t understand that the book was supposed to be set in the early 20th century, which is when it was written!
But I do remember how much fun Betsy had living in Vermont with her cousins…ok, I also didn’t understand how she was supposed to be related to them, but being a Southerner, not knowing how all of your “cousins” are related to you exactly is pretty normal (we do see our extended families here), so that actually resonated with me. She is given her aunt’s antique doll to play with and make clothes for. She gets to run around on the family farm and play in the barn; it reminded me of climbing all over the derelict boats at my dad’s boat shop. At school and at home, she is expected to help with chores, but the “chores” involve making butter and cooking, among other things. She gets to eat plenty of healthy, homemade food (that sounds delicious) and plenty of time to play outside. The climax of the novel is when she accidentally gets left behind at the county fair and has to figure out how to get herself home. While this plot turn may seem to border on child neglect, it is clear that Betsy knows she can ask an adult for help if she really gets stuck. As a kid, I think I liked seeing how Betsy works things out for herself rather than always going to the adults. The way the scene plays out, the point is made that she decides to see if she can take care of herself, and she does. I think I found that reassuring: you know, kids sometimes feel so helpless.
This was one of my favorite childhood books, but I also enjoy reading it as an adult. I think it’s a must read for beginning teachers and parents. I also strongly recommend it as a read-aloud for adults and children together.
Nothing in this story is about child abuse or neglect: although Betsy is an orphan, she has two different groups of relatives vying to take care of her, and both provide loving homes. This story is about how too much “concern” (e.g. helicopter parenting) is bad for children: what they need is to feel like a part of the community and learn from doing…exactly what current educators talk about!
What I didn’t know until I was much older and in graduate school is that Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the author, is known for being a supporter of Montessori education and a social activist. I actually referenced this book when I wrote an essay about teachers in children’s literature during my doctoral studies.
When I started teaching, at first I hesitated to ask my own 13 year old students to do anything other than their school work because it was hard to get them to do that, but pretty soon I learned that they thought I didn’t like them when I didn’t ask them to help in the classroom! Imagine that!
And I always teach my students that each of them is good at some things and needs help with others. If they think they aren’t great at school tasks, we talk about what they are good at.
When I researched Canfield Fisher to write this article, I found out that sadly a Vermont Children’s Literature Award named in her honor is going to be renamed this year because of her involvement in the Eugenics movement and negative portrayals of French Canadians and Native Americans in her work (which do not appear in Understood Betsy). We are all products of our times, and I hope that attitudes and believes that we have moved beyond in the last 100 years won’t eradicate the positive aspects of Canfield Fisher’s career.
When I read Understood Betsy, I feel as though this book could have been written yesterday (as historical fiction). Canfield Fisher could have been writing a manual for developing “grit”, “resilience”, and “critical reasoning”, current catchphrases in child development circles. Betsy is encouraged to eat well and healthily, play outside, contribute to work in the family, to help others, and most importantly, think for herself.
Understood Betsy is available in the public domain at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Understood_Betsy