Mary's Reviews > Understood Betsy

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
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Mar 31, 08

Recommended for: Everyone!
Read in January, 1971

** spoiler alert ** This turn-of-the-century children's book is one of the most captivating stories ever written!! The story begins on a note so "dark" that it's almost inappropriate for children, as nine-year-old orphan Elizabeth Ann (no last name is ever given), smothered by the excessive attentions of her hypochondriachal aunts and their quavering housekeeper, cries after experiencing one of her recurring nightmares in which she sees herself inside a little white casket, draped with roses. We learn in later chapters that Elizabeth Ann has never been anywhere by herself, to the extent of being accompanied to each new class at school (her aunts fear that their niece would be terrified among strangers without having someone along to hold her hand); has never had enough to eat, or more than a single cup of milk to drink each day (her aunts fear for her niece's "delicate digestion"); has never owned a pet (her aunts have raised her to be terrified of dogs, and although she longs for a kitten, fear that all animals carry diseases which might prove deadly to delicate little girls)...we learn, in fact, that Elizabeth Ann has never laughed aloud in all her life. When this cheery household is broken up by the sudden, contagious illness of the elder aunt, poor Elizabeth Ann must face an unimaginable fate: she's to be sent to "those terrible Putneys" - her Aunt Abigail, Uncle Henry, and grown Cousin Ann, who live on a small farm, and who, as Elizabeth Ann's guardian aunts have taught her, are barbarians who have no idea how to treat a child - as Aunt Frances recalls with a shudder, "They made the children do the chores, just as if they were hired men!" All too soon, a literally sobbing Elizabeth Ann is bundled onto a train bound for the Putney Farm, "where there were no good times to be had". Poor Elizabeth Ann fears that everything will be strange and unfamiliar...and indeed it is; from the moment she meets Uncle Henry, a new and dramatically different world unfolds before her: she's handed the reins to drive the horses back to Putney Farm (her compliance in the face of sheer panic is rewarded by the first feelings of pride and accomplishment she's ever known), presented with a kitten to help ease her homesickness, and given all the food she can eat; she's given a bed to share with warm, gentle, and sizeable Aunt Abigail and watches her peacefully reading without a fear in the world; and when the long-fearful, long-neglected orphan bursts into tears at the first security she's ever felt, Aunt Abigail holds her close, and allows her kitten to join her in the bed. The next morning, Betsy's world (for the Putneys favor "Betsy" over the stiff, formal "Elizabeth Ann") continues to change: she's left to dress herself and comb her own hair, and is expected to fix her own breakfast (to her utter astonishment, she's allowed to drink *all the milk she wants!*); she reacts to the first joke she's ever heard; she's enlisted to help make the butter and prepare the noontime meal; she's encouraged to hand-feed table scraps to Shep, the great, horrible, terrifying, and utterly harmless dog (who soon becomes her best friend, along with her kitten); she laughs out loud at Shep's antics for the very first time in her life; and - at the cost of another flash of sheer panic - she walks down the road to the local school, all by herself! From making popcorn with Uncle Henry and reading aloud to the family in the evening, to learning to make waxed sugar from maple syrup and longing to climb a mountain; from rescuing a six-year-old schoolmate from a snow cave-in (and gaining her as a temporary little sister, while the child's mother recovers from an illness), to plotting the rescue of another young schoolmate from his abusive, alcoholic father; and from protecting her "little sister" while the two of them are stranded miles from home at a county fair, to her final showdown with - and revelation about - Aunt Frances, Betsy's story is one that is not to be missed. A masterpiece!
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