Sunday, February 03, 2008

Understood Betsy

Fisher, Dorothy Canfield. 1917. Understood Betsy.

When this story begins, Elizabeth Ann, who is the heroine of it, was a little girl of nine, who lived with her Great-aunt Harriet in a medium-sized city in a medium-sized state in the middle of this country; and that's all you need to know about the place, for it's not the important thing in the story; and anyhow you know all about it because it was probably very much like the place you live in yourself.

Elizabeth Ann is an orphan raised by her great-aunt Harriet and her aunt Frances. The first chapter shows the reader just how life as she knew it was for Elizabeth Ann. To say she was coddled would be a bit of an understatement. To say that both aunts and niece were a bit psychologically unsound would be a bit closer to the truth. It's not that they're crazy crazy. It's just that they're anxious, jittery, nervous, worrisome, panicky, fidgety, chicken-little-y type people. They're sweet and docile enough, but they lack gumption and ingenuity and vitality.

Understood Betsy is the story of how Elizabeth Ann transforms into Betsy. It all starts when one of her caretakers gets diagnosed with an unnamed disease. (If they named it, I sure missed it. But I think the main point was to get the two aunts out of the picture.) Elizabeth Ann is sent to live with the other side of the family. Her aunt (Abigail) and uncle (Henry) and first cousin (Ann). They live in Vermont, I believe.

From the very beginning, Elizabeth Ann knew that she was entering the unknown. On her way to her new home--in the buggy--she has her first enlightened moment. "It is possible that what stirred inside her head at that moment was her brain, waking up. She was nine years old, and she was in the third-A grade at school, but that was the very first time she had ever had a whole thought of her very own." (21)

Her awakening, her transformation is entertaining enough and the descriptions of life and family are charming as well. I think some readers will love Betsy, understand Betsy; but I'd be silly if I didn't acknowledge the fact that some readers would find Understood Betsy to be boring or quaint. Anyway, long story short...I loved it. I thought it was great. If I had discovered this as a child--like my mother did and most likely my grandmother did--I'm sure I would have loved it. I'm sure I would have read it over and over again.

You can find the entire book--including illustrations--online.


ad libber said...

Yes, it remains one of my favourite books even now. It is quaint, it is old fashioned, but it still is an indelible part of my childhood. Lovely post.

Mary Prather said...

My daughter (8) is starting this book today... I knew from reading the description of the book that she will most likely enjoy it. I'll keep you posted!