Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Understood Betsy

Recently I read Dorothy Canfield Fisher's novel, Understood Betsy, originally published by Century Books in 1916 and by Henry Holt & Company in 1917. Several free versions are available online.


One e-edition, posted online in various forms, is here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5347 . Another edition is here:  http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/canfield/understood/understood.htmlI downloaded a digitized version from Google Books into my Google Play app on my iPad: https://books.google.com/books?id=U0zTAAAAMAAJ.

While the book was written for children, adults will also enjoy it. I did. It's a wonderful look back to a simpler time, and is rich in details of everyday life of a century ago.

The plot: Nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann, orphaned as a baby, has spent her life with her Great-Aunt Harriet and her Aunt Frances (Harriet's daughter) in a city somewhere in the Mid-West. When they took her in, they were glad that Elizabeth Ann's other relatives, The Putneys in Vermont, didn't get her. They didn't like the Putneys at all.

Chapter 1 shows their dedication to Elizabeth Ann:
There was certainly neither coldness nor hardness in the way Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances treated Elizabeth Ann. They had really given themselves up to the new responsibility; especially Aunt Frances, who was very conscientious about everything. As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers' Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.

She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann's doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl's thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong and well.

Aunt Frances did everything for Elizabeth Ann—dressing her, combing her hair, walking her to school and back, etc. Elizabeth Ann didn't even have to think for herself; Aunt Frances took care of that for the "sensitive, nervous little girl." When Harriet developes a serious cough, the doctor recommends treatment and Elizabeth Ann must stay with her Putney relatives for a while. It will, she's assured, only be temporary. A family friend accompanies her partway by train. When Elizabeth Ann arrives, her Uncle Henry meets her in a horse and buggy—and promptly hands her the reins. She's puzzzled at first, but soome figures things out. When she arrives at Uncle Henry and Aunt Abigail's house, she finds that she has to do a lot of things for herself—and her relatives call her Betsy, not Elizabeth Ann. What Betsy learns over the course of the year changes her considerably. And therein lies the story.

I loved the author's voice. While there's a lot more telling than there is showing, the author is a wonderfully intrusive narrator, commenting on things that—well—need commenting upon. Plus she does an admirable job of letting her readers see how different life was a century ago.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher is an interesting character in her own right. Biographical information about her is here: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dorothy-Canfield-Fisher and here: http://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fisher-dorothy-canfield-1879-1958. The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award honors excellence in children's literature.

Recently, however, there was a movement to get rid of the book award because of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's past involvement in the eugenics movement—"Author under scrutiny for long ago ties to eugenics"  provides some background.

From Molly Walsh's June 2017 article, "Vermont Considers Dumping Dorothy Canfield Fisher Over Ties to Eugenics Movement": "It's appropriate to revisit history and reexamine the lessons it might teach through a contemporary lens, said State Librarian Scott Murphy, who has the final say on whether to remove Fisher's name. But he said it's also important to view things in context and take a measured approach when it comes to removing honors in response to changing attitudes and understanding."

Many came to her defense: "Institutions, relatives, respond to Dorothy Canfield Fisher controversy
In his July 2017 Times-Argus commentary,"Don't scapegoat Fisher," Richard Gower defends her:
"That was then, and this is now. You can’t change history. You can only hope to learn from it. And, arguably, society has learned from many mistakes of the past and advanced because of them."

What needs to be understood about both the book and the controversy:
Re-examine the lessons of history from a contemporary lens.
You can't change history.
View things in context. 

~

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