Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879 – 1958) was an interesting woman with a passion for writing, education, and social justice. She had a particular interest in Montessori education, and that shows up clearly in Understood Betsy, which is (to date) the only work of hers which I have read. Finding Fisher’s works in hard copy can be difficult, which is the only reason I haven’t followed up my enjoyment of Understood Betsy by trying out more of her writing.
You can find out more about Fisher from her Wikipedia biography.
Understood Betsy was written in 1917. It’s a children’s book and tells the story of a little girl who is orphaned as a baby and being raised by her Aunt Harriet and Cousin Frances. These two women are extremely well-intentioned and love young Elizabeth dearly, but Frances in particular creates problems for the child by ‘understanding’ her so much that she exacerbates minor issues like a bad dream or seeing a big dog while out on a walk.
When Elizabeth is nine years old, Aunt Harriet falls ill, and on doctor’s orders is sent to live in a warmer place, with Cousin Frances to look after her. Poor Elizabeth is shipped off to ‘the Putney cousins’ – relatives who had originally offered to take her as a baby, and who Harriet and Frances have disparaged in her hearing for years. The Putneys are a no-nonsense farming family, consisting of Aunt Abigail, Uncle Henry, and Cousin Anne, and life for Elizabeth (promptly rechristened Betsy by the informal Putneys) is soon very, very different.
Why I Love It
I do love a good, old-fashioned children’s book – the kind with extraordinary amounts of tasty-sounding food, children charging independently through the countryside, and a depiction of a simple way of life which may never have existed in reality – and Understood Betsy is a great example of this. There’s definitely a moral to the story (it’s not hard to tell which method of child-rearing Fisher supports!), but it’s not too heavy-handed for a book of this period, and you get a good sense of the characters as individuals. Cousin Anne is a delight, and it’s sweet to see how her relationship with Elizabeth/Betsy changes over time.
I’m not sure how many modern children would love this book as the pace might be a bit slow, but any child who enjoys books like Anne of Green Gables should be fine with the gentle meandering of Understood Betsy. For myself, the slow pace and uncomplicated plot is what makes this book a recurrent favourite. This is one of those books I reach for when I’m tired, stressed, and in need of something easy and comfortable.
Where To Get It
Sadly, my local library system (which allows me to request books from any library in my state) doesn’t have a copy of Understood Betsy, or any other works by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It is possible to buy a copy, though – there’s a nice paperback version for sale through Book Depository which is on my ‘To Buy’ list. The only reason it hasn’t made it to the top yet is that I do already own this book as an audiobook and an ebook!
My first exposure to Understood Betsy came when I stumbled across it on Librivox, which (if you haven’t had the pleasure) is a fantastic site which provides free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers. I listened to this version, and enjoyed it very much.
I also now have a copy of Understood Betsy as an ebook, downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg (another great source of free public domain books); the direct link to Understood Betsy is here.