Every once in a while I come across a book that I read when I was a lot younger, and I reread it, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why it took me so long to reread it. Understood Betsy was definitely one of those books – I probably last read it in junior high, and I loved it so much during this reread that I couldn’t believe that it had just been sitting on my shelf for so long!
Originally published in 1916, this isn’t a tale of high adventure or great drama. Instead, it’s a fairly simple story about a young orphan girl who goes from living with a hovering, over-indulgent pair of aunts to live with her down-to-earth cousins in the country. At its heart, it is about Betsy learning to be more independent and confident, and, in the process, learning some life lessons. In some ways, the story is almost polemic, as Canfield obviously feels quite strongly about the importance of letting children experiment and live their lives, having them spend a great deal of time out-of-doors, and letting them learn at their own pace.
The story begins with Elizabeth Ann, and the description of her current life. Canfield tells us of her circumstances in a very wry tone of voice that I found quite funny. Canfield is never mean about Elizabeth Ann’s aunts, who are portrayed as loving Elizabeth Ann very much and wanting the best for her. Indeed, that very desire is what makes them rather smother her with care.
Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking … the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily, “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. Mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so.”
In fact, Aunt Frances is so good at protecting Elizabeth Ann, she sometimes knows that something will frighten Elizabeth Ann before Elizabeth Ann does!
But life changes drastically when the other aunt, Aunt Harriet, develops a worrisome cough and has to be taken to a warmer climate to recover. The doctor doesn’t think it is wise for a child to be around this cough, and, through a series of events, Elizabeth Ann ends up being sent up to “the Putney cousins” in the wilds of Vermont.
Here, no one seems to think that Elizabeth Ann – immediately called Betsy by these relatives – ought to be scared of much of anything. She’s expected to do terrible things, like chores. She goes to a one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher has her reading with children older than her, but doing arithmetic with children younger than her. She’s expected to help with the young children at school. The cousins have a HUGE DOG!
These small adventures are just an absolute delight. I could have read ten books about Betsy and been perfectly happy. Watching her grow in independence is wonderful, not just because she becomes more confident, happy, and healthy, but also because she is learning about genuine love, loyalty, and independence. I love the sections where Betsy is expected to do something, and she has to make decisions for herself.
Somebody had always been explaining things to Elizabeth Ann so industriously that she had never found out a single thing for herself before. This was a very small discovery, but an original one. Elizabeth Ann was as excited about it as a mother-bird over the first egg that hatches.
What surprised me, just a smidge, was how relevant so much of this book still is. In this day and age, children are smothered and coddled more than ever, with every whim catered to and every moment filled with activity – so little room for allowing them healthy independence, exploration, and creativity. The so-called education system is more concerned with test scores and getting kids into colleges than it is with actually teaching them the basics of understanding. And on the whole, our society is becoming more and more disconnected from the simplicity of being outdoors. (No joke, when I was a kid, I spent hours outside playing with a stick, which was my favorite possession, as it could become so many, many other things in my vivid imagination. It was a very nice stick.)
Understood Betsy is one of those delightful books that stands the test of time very well. It’s over a hundred years old, yet the story is still a delight to read, the characters real and relatable, the story thoughtful and challenging, but not aggressively so. If you are looking for a story that is warm and happy, with just enough grit to keep you thinking about it for a while, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.