Sunday, November 20, 2011

Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher

 Understood Betsy (1916) is the story of nervous, sickly city kid Elizabeth Ann, who is an orphan living with her two aunts.  One of the aunts is elderly and in poor health.  The younger one is kind of high-strung and very much a helicopter aunt, although this was the days before helicopters.  One day, the older aunt gets really sick and must be cared for full-time.  Elizabeth Ann is shipped off to her mother's cousins who live on a farm in Vermont. In less than a year, quailing Elizabeth Ann is transformed into healthy, hearty Betsy who has survived and thrived in the country life and in a country school.  She has changed from being afraid of everything (including having to use her own brain) to being quite clever, resourceful and aware of the world around her.

This book made me nostalgic for Vermont -- although I've never been there -- and hungry for creamed potatoes and applesauce and oatmeal and all sorts of good, plain cooking.  I developed a bit of a girl crush on Cousin Ann, who is the antithesis of Aunt Frances, the helicopter aunt.  With just a few words, she is able to put Betsy's old-ladyish worrying into perspective.  On the subject of examinations, (which make Betsy a nervous wreck) she remarks how she always liked them because they seemed fun, like 'taking a dare':

 "Someone stumps you to jump off the hitching-post, and you do it to show 'em.  I always used to think examinations were like that.  Somebody stumps you to spell 'pneumonia' and you do it to show 'em."

When Betsy continues moaning about her mistakes, Cousin Ann cuts her off with:  "It [failing the examination] doesn't matter if you know the right answers, does it?  That's the important thing...I guess Hemlock Mountain will stand right there just the same even if you did forget to put a b in doubt."

Betsy's little country school seems to be of great interest to the author and she describes it often in loving detail, contrasting it with Betsy's city school experiences.  The teacher checks Betsy's levels in each subject and puts her in seventh grade reading, third grade spelling and second grade arithmetic.  Then she sets Betsy to helping first grader Molly with her reading lesson.

Betsy is perplexed:  "What grade AM I?"

The teacher laughs.  "YOU aren't any grade at all, no matter where you are in school.  You're just yourself, aren't you?  What difference does it make what grade you're in!"

 After describing the teacher's methods, Fisher ends the chapter by saying significantly, "It was only a poor, rough, little district school anyway, that no Superintendent of Schools would have looked at for a minute, except to sniff."

I should have suspected something, but it wasn't until the teacher encouraged the girls to bring their dolls to school that I smelled me some Montessori.  I was right.  A quick little trip to Wikipedia revealed that Dorothy Canfield Fisher worked with Maria Montessori in Italy a few years before she wrote Understood Betsy.  Fisher introduced the Montessori method to the United States with her book A Montessori Mother (1912).

In the midst of Betsy's being and becoming, there's an odd little chapter about one of her little classmates whose alcoholic father is neglecting him.  The father's not shown as cruel, like Huck Finn's Pap, as in quick with a blow -- it's more like he's too drunk to even notice the boy is alive.  Thanks to Betsy's initial outspoken remarks about little Claude's wretched condition, some of the neighbors finally intervene to find a better place for him to live.

I totally loved this book.  Even Fisher's authorial intrusion didn't bother me as much as it usually does, as it seemed very sensible and knowing and caring like the Putneys.  I love how Betsy's self-confidence and critical thinking skills grow exponentially with each day she spends with Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann.  I loved Understood Betsy so much that I went out and found a couple of other (adult) novels by Dorothy Canfield Fisher:  The Bent Twig (1915) and The Brimming Cup (1921).  I also found Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook.


Silsbee said...

This book made me nostalgic for Vermont -- although I've never been there

The best books do this, don't they? :)

I've always wanted to read this book (I'm a fan of vintage children's books). I will keep an eye out for it.

Teresa said...

I read The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher earlier this year, and it was wonderful. I'm not a bit surprised to learn that she worked with Maria Montessori. You can see that peeking in to The Home-Maker as well, although gender roles are the main concern of the book

Eva said...

Ohhh, this sounds right up my alley! Although I have no idea what th eMontessori method is, lol.

Eva said...

Um, has all of her books, so now I don't know which one to download first! lol

Care said...

I was just in Putney Vermont yesterday! and yes, Vermont is absolutely lovely.

Anonymous said...

I have loved this book since I read it for the first time, at the age of 10. I still love it and I still recommend it and give it away every chance I get.