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 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!