The Orphan Club

I read an awful lot as a kid, but there are still plenty of books that I missed.  I’m starting to wonder if I had some sort of strange prejudice against girls named Betsy–after all, I didn’t discover Betsy Ray until college.  And only recently did I discover another delightful Betsy.

Understood BetsyUnderstood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (published in 1917) became a choice for the museum’s book club when I discovered that Fisher was a devotee of Maria Montessori’s ideas and had written the book to promote those ideas.  Our theme this year is “education” so it seemed like a good way to talk about the student experience during the early 20th century.  Montessori’s ideas were relatively new (and somewhat unpopular) in the United States in 1917.  I’ll admit–when I started reading, I expected it to be more than a wee bit preachy.   Instead, I found a thoroughly delightful addition to the “plucky orphan who finds a better home” genre.  If a reader didn’t know about the Montessori connection, they certainly wouldn’t guess that this is a book with an agenda.

Unlike many similar books, Betsy has a pretty good home at the opening of the book.  She is completely coddled by her Aunt Frances, a woman who might have been the very first helicopter parent.  When Aunt Frances’ mother becomes ill, Betsy is sent to the dreadful Putney cousins–a family that makes everyone do chores!  Think for themselves!  Learn by doing!  In a completely predictable turn of events, Betsy develops into a strong, confident young lady and ultimately continues to live with the Putney family.

During our book club discussion, we wondered some why this book wasn’t better known.  Though there seem to be plenty of folks incredibly nostalgic for this book, Betsy usually isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Anne Shirley, Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or even Pollyanna.  We came up with a couple of theories as to why.  One is that the most famous orphans weren’t created by American authors.  Another person suggested that it was because there is only one book about this Betsy.

But I wonder if part of it doesn’t have to do with the author herself.  Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote many, many books–some for children, some for adults.  She was much, much more than a writer–an activist, reformer, and all around fascinating lady.  I’m dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a full length biography of her since the one published just after her death in 1958.  In one of my favorite tidbits, she served on the Book of the Month selection committee for over 25 years.  Did her wide-ranging involvement mean that this charming part of her career was left in the dust?  Was it not significant enough?  And yet, the book has basically stayed in print all these years.  Nevertheless, out of our book club, there was only one person who had read it as a child.  And the only reason I knew about it was through my Betsy-Tacy friends.  But we all agreed that we would certainly hand Understood Betsy to a child who liked historical fiction.  It is perplexing how this book has both lasted, and yet been undercover.

Regardless, it’s always exciting to add another character to the orphan club in kidlit history.  There are an awful lot of members!

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3 thoughts on “The Orphan Club

  1. Melissa I LOVE this book! I discovered it when my daughter was young and it was one of the first chapter books we read aloud. And it made much sense to me as I loved the educational philosophy in the book and agreed with much of it. Enjoyed the characters. We have read this book 3 times, and we only re-read a few certain favorites. Had no idea it was written to promote Montersorri’s educational vision. That is a fun bit of knowledge to have. Think we will have to do some more research on the author as she sounds fascinating.

  2. I remember loving this book as a child, and would vote for your theory that it was lost partly because there is just one book, for children of this age do like to keep going with a series. I also agree there should be another biography. She’s a bit more celebrated in Vermont than other places — the statewide award for children’s books is named in honor, and Vermont does make quite a lovely event of this involving many child readers.

  3. This book served as one of the staples of my bookshelf when I was growing up, and my mom and sisters and I think of it very fondly. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but it’s certainly a sweet story – and a funny one!

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