I recently finished reading My Life in France, by Julia Childs. It was a very fun book to read. As a fellow French-food-lover, I nodded knowingly as Julia tasted good French cooking for the first time, and then continued to read admiringly as she determinedly set about trying to figure out WHY French food tastes so good!
When I came to the part in the book where she is trying to find a publisher for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, though, I was in for a surprise. She talked about meeting with a good friend of hers; a famous author from Vermont named Dorothy Canfield, in order to get some advice on publishing. Dorothy Canfield! There could only be one writer named Dorothy Canfield from Vermont: the author of my favorite childhood book, Understood Betsy.
Understood Betsy is the story of a young girl named Elizabeth Ann. Timid, shy and uncertain about herself, she lives with her two aunts in a large city (which I’ve always assumed must be Boston). But when one of the aunts becomes ill, she is set away to live with the dreaded “Putney cousins” in far away Vermont. There she learns to become a strong, confident, self-reliant child, and finds out what it means to be truly “understood” by those that love her.
I received this book as a birthday present from one of my classmates when I was in third grade. I was a precocious young reader, but even so parts of this book were a little over my head the first time I read it. One chapter was called “Aunt Harriet Has a Cough” which I initially read as “Aunt Harriet Has a Coach”. This really mystified me at first as I tried to understand why having a coach would necessitate Elizabeth Ann being sent away.
But most of this book I read with complete fascination. Elizabeth Ann was SO MUCH LIKE ME! She was afraid of dogs! She didn’t have many friends! She loved to read! She hated math! She hated reading in class because they went so slow! And most of all, she felt alone, as if there was nobody else in the world that was anything like her. In fact I felt this so adamantly that as much as I loved this book I felt a bit suspicious about being given it as a gift. Why did they give ME this book? Did they KNOW?
I read this book over and over and over as a child, and in fact I still own it and it holds a place of honor on my bookshelf. When Julia Child mentioned Dorothy Canfield I felt a thrill of recognition, and a spark of curiosity. Who was Dorothy Canfield anyway and how did she come to write such an amazing book?
So I got on Amazon and searched for her. She was an interesting woman for sure and wrote lots of magazine articles and a few other books. But Understood Betsy was her most famous creation, and there it was, available from Amazon. I started reading the reviews and I had another revelation. Here were HUNDREDS of other women who had read this book as a child and had a similar reaction as mine. They all loved this book because Betsy reminded them of themselves. They all wanted, just like me, to go live on a farm in Vermont with cousins that really understood them and helped her to become a braver and better person.
So, here once again, is another piece of evidence that this little girl that felt so strange and different as a child was not really that different at all. It’s the same as when I went to the reunion happy hour a couple of months ago. So many times in our lives we think we are alone, when all around us are people that feel just like we do. It’s such a strange discovery to be making in my late 50’s!
I actually got some practical information from Understood Betsy about solving some problems in my life. This book gave me the courage to start to try to work to overcome my fear of dogs. This fear was debilitating and prevented me at times from going places and doing things I wanted to do. It took me a long time; in fact I was in college before I finally completely overcame this fear, but Betsy planted the seed that it was something I could do someday.
The second thing this book did was give me a path to overcoming my problems with math. I knew that I was missing something in math class. Part of my problem was a feeling of panic that would overcome me when I had to do math, which would prevent me from thinking clearly. The second problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to memorize my times tables. It was like I was missing the foundation that mathematical understanding is built upon and this problem was only getting worse. In the book when Betsy moves to Vermont she goes to a one room school house where she gets individual help with her math problems and is able to go back and go through second grade math again so that she really understands what’s going on. “This is what I need to do!” I thought when I read this part of the book.
It took until fifth grade for me to have an opportunity to try this remedy. In fifth grade they were starting something called “new math”. Our teacher asked if anyone wanted to do a math review instead of the new math and I raised my hand. Along with a few other classmates we were given a private tutor who started over at the beginning and made sure we truly understood the mathematical principles we had supposedly learned up until then. That math review completely changed my math abilities! I became an A student in math, at least until I hit calculus!
I’ve been thinking about this book so much in the past few days. There are very few other books from my childhood that affected me so deeply. The Little House Books and the writings of Louisa May Alcott all provided a serious connection with fictional characters. But reading Understood Betsy was the first time a character in a book “leaped off the page” and became a real person to me. I am to this day undyingly grateful to Dorothy Canfield for creating this little girl, for me and so many other little girls that felt different, scared and alone. Understood Betsy gave me a sense of possibility, and a budding determination to try to get what I needed from the world. It was only the beginning, but it was a start.