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Thirty-five years ago, I bought a copy of Understood Betsy and two Nancy Drew mysteries at a yard sale. The mystery stories were like so many others I’d read, and now the plots are long-forgotten. But I always remembered Betsy.
Nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann is an orphan, who is lovingly and contentiously cared for by her Great Aunt Harriet and her Aunt Frances. They live in a medium-sized city in a medium-sized state in the middle of the US, in the early part of the twentieth century.
Aunt Frances, a nervous spinster, has applied herself to Elizabeth Ann’s care with a fierce devotion that seems to take all her energy and focus. She strives to truly “understand” Elizabeth Ann, shelter her, and provide her with every advantage. Though Aunt Frances’ love and devotion were surely intended to surround Elizabeth Ann with a sense of security and love, that devotion goes so far as to hobble the child and restrict her development. She does not know how to dress herself, comb her hair or button her coat.
Through what she believes is loving care and empathy, Aunt Frances conveys her own fears and neuroses to Elizabeth Ann.
Then one day, Aunt Harriet is taken ill, and must go live in a warm climate. Aunt Frances, who is needed to care for her mother, arranges for Elizabeth Ann to stay with other relatives. Those relatives are unwilling to keep Elizabeth Ann, and arrange to send her to the Putney cousins in Vermont.
Elizabeth Ann has heard stories about the Putneys–how they are stiff-necked, undemonstrative New Englanders who make children do chores. Of course, she has no idea what chores are–but they must be something dreadful!
Elizabeth Ann’s terror turns to curiosity as she adjusts to life with the Putneys. It turns out they do know a thing or two about raising children, and as Elizabeth Ann is allowed to explore and learn on her own, she comes to trust her abilities and her intelligence–and becomes Betsy. When Aunt Frances comes to claim Betsy, she finds a self-actualized young girl who not only understands herself, but her timid aunt as well.
Understood Betsy is a charming story with a theme that resonates in the present. We see much in today’s news about over-scheduled children, schools that care more about bureaucracy than teaching, and helicopter parents who hover relentlessly long after their offspring have gone off to university.
There is a lesson for every parent and every child in this story about the joy of learning, self-discovery, and independence, and how “modern” parenting and educational methods may not be the best thing for our children.
For instance, in the chapter “What Grade is Betsy?” the teenaged teacher in the one-room country school recognized Betsy’s academic strengths and weaknesses, and placed her in her lessons accordingly. By the end of the day, Betsy is seventh-grade reading, third-grade spelling and second-grade arithmetic. She has also been asked to tutor a first grader who is reading well above grade level. Betsy is thunderstruck–nothing like this could have happened in her old school. When she wonders aloud at how she can be in so many grades at once, the teacher replies, “What’s the use of you reading little baby things that are too easy for you, just because you don’t know your multiplication table?”
And Betsy understands, for the first time, why she goes to school. She never before realized she was there to learn to use her mind so she could take care of herself someday, when she was grown up.
Parents, read this story aloud to your kids. There is much to be learned and enjoyed as Betsy lives through this pivotal year in her life.
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield is available in print and ebook formats.