Review: Understood Betsy

“He sent his marble straight to the mark, pocketed his opponent’s, and stood up, scowling at the little mothers. ‘I guess if you had to live the way he does you’d be dirty! Half the time he don’t get anything to eat before he comes to school, and if my mother didn’t put up some extra for him in my box he wouldn’t get any lunch either. And then you go and jump on him!’ ” chapter 8

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Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield, illustrated by Ada C. Williamson.
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1917 (orig. pub 1916)
Children’s literature, 271 pages.
Lexile:  1000L  .
AR Level:  5.9 (worth 8.0 points)  .
NOTE:  The references above are to the print edition, however I read the free ebook edition available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5347? .

Nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann’s parents died when she was a baby, so she’s lived all her life with her great-aunt Harriet and has been raised by her cousin (whom she calls aunt) Frances.  However, since Harriet’s taken ill, she has to go live with another branch of the family while Frances nurses her mother.

Understood Betsy cover

At my new job I’ve been getting to know some homeschooling parents.  Many are more concerned about other aspects than diversity, but one asked my opinion about a few booklists.  Most of the books I was able to find reviews of on other sites, but a few I wasn’t able to find good critiques of, so I found copies to read them myself.

Friends, it was dismal.

After reading so many books that were at best unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes and untruths, and knowing they’re on modern day reading lists and staunchly defended by certain parents, I was feeling rather depressed about America.  So I decided to try to find some better books.  Most don’t fit on this blog, but since this book deals with kinship fostering/adoption, I’ve chosen to review it.

Although this book was first published in 1916, several aspects remain quite relevant today.  Parenting choices such as overprotection or encouraging self-sufficiency are still topics of interest.  And many children are still raised by family other than parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles.

Understood Betsy frontspiece
Uncle Henry looked at her, eyeing her sidewise over the top of one spectacle glass. (Page 34)

In other ways though, Understood Betsy is likely to be quite different than modern reader’s experiences of the world.  While informal kinship situations still exist today, there are many more laws governing a child in Betsy’s circumstances.  It’s less likely (although still possible) that Mrs. Lanthrop could so casually send the girl to her unknown cousins in another state, especially if child welfare was involved or if Great-Aunt Harriet had legal guardianship which was provisionally granted to Cousin Molly.

What does still ring true is the rejection that Betsy, and later others, face when a home is needed in an emergency situation.

The only obviously wrong line was in the first chapter:

“So she listened patiently while the little girl told her all about the fearful dreams she had, the great dogs with huge red mouths that ran after her, the Indians who scalped her, her schoolhouse on fire so that she had to jump from a third-story window and was all broken to bits—once in a while Elizabeth Ann got so interested in all this that she went on and made up more awful things even than she had dreamed, and told long stories which showed her to be a child of great imagination.”

I’d also expect a modern book to mention something about the indigenous people of the area when Betsy discusses the family history with Aunt Abigail.  Betsy’s extended family first came to Vermont in 1763, and Aunt Abigail says, “There wasn’t anything here but trees and bears and wood-pigeons.”

There was not “nothing” there, the white settlers were entering a land that had been carefully managed for human habitation for generations and which was empty because of systemic genocide against indigenous people.

However, compared to other books from this time period, Understood Betsy remains remarkably appropriate for modern readers.  Of course, Betsy moves to rural Vermont, so she doesn’t exactly encounter a diverse cast of characters.  What Betsy does experience are a variety of classes and lifestyles.

Besides the difference in both attitude and daily life from her city family and her Vermont family, she also encounters several children her own age.  Although she attended half day school, she didn’t have friends until moving to the country, and is shocked that other children have feelings similar to her.

Understood Betsy - Betsy and Ellen and the old doll
Understood Betsy, “Betsy and Ellen and the old doll.”

Betsy grows and learns a great deal over the course of the book, and the methods her Vermont relatives use to guide her are still relevant today.  A major storyline revolves around a boy whose stepfather abuses and neglects him.  With gentle encouragement, some children try to help him, but want to go about it in all the wrong ways.  Pointed questions lead them to a better choice.

Although this book contains only white characters, this particular part could lend itself well to a discussion of the white savior myth or precipitate a conversation about socioeconomic differences.  At the very least, it could teach children that assistance should always be rendered with dignity.

Any of the three adoption/kinship/foster scenarios in this book may provoke questions from children who are familiar with modern day fostering and adoption.  Although once again the text doesn’t bring this up, an adult could use this as a chance to discuss how our current laws came to be and why.

We have a full reading schedule at the moment, but this is one that, with a few modifications and discussions, I would happily read aloud to my family.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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