For much of her life nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann thought she was understood by her guardians, Great-Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances. Elizabeth’s parents had died when she was a baby, and her relatives rushed to take her in, both to give her a good home and to keep her from ending up with the Putney cousins, who lived on a farm and made children do chores. At a young age Elizabeth overheard Aunt Harriet telling her low opinion of the Putney relatives.
Unmarried Aunt Frances (who was actually Elizabeth’s cousin) had never raised a child before, but she read lots of books on the subject and knew how important is was for children to be understood. She understood how frightened little girls might be of dogs, so whenever she and Elizabeth encountered one Frances assured the girl she was there to protect her from the canine. She understood that girls might have delicate stomachs and poor appetites, and be afraid of thunderstorms, and have bad dreams, so she was always there to make sure Elizabeth had someone to tell all her troubles to. And Frances understood that a girl would be uneasy around the crowds of common children playing outside of the school building, so she always walked Elizabeth to and from school, so the girl wouldn’t be bothered by all those other children.
Elizabeth was so understood that she became a puny, unhappy girl who never had to do a bit of work, and was afraid of just about everything.
Frances was concerned that Elizabeth was so thin and pale, and asked a doctor to make a house-call and prescribe the dear child a tonic. The doctor refused to recommend medicine for Elizabeth, but as he was leaving he heard Aunt Harriet cough, and that got his attention.
He insisted on examining the older lady, then said she was very sick, would have to spend months in a different climate with Frances to care for her, and Elizabeth would need to be kept away from her.
Arrangements were made for a relative in the city to give a temporary home for Elizabeth, but after Harriet and Frances had left the relative’s mother-in-law insisted there was sickness in their household and the girl could not stay with them. Elizabeth would need to be put on a train to go and live with the Putney relatives.
Not the Putneys! Aunt Harriet didn’t approve of them. Weak and nervous Elizabeth, who’d never traveled the few blocks to school on her own, had to travel to another state, to live with people she’d never met. And there was no one around to understand her, or listen to her troubles.
After a trip to Vermont Elizabeth was met at the train station by Great-Uncle Henry Putney, who didn’t know that little girls were to be fussed over, and asked if they’d had any troubles on their journey. After a wagon ride they arrived at Putney Farm where she met Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann. The ladies called her Betsy, and didn’t know a girl was to be helped with taking off her coat.
On that first night Betsy (as Elizabeth was now called) was not expected to help with chores, but the next morning she learned that after meals were eaten she would be expected to wash the dishes. The Putneys seemed surprised that she had no idea how to wash anything, but they politely explained that it would be a good time to learn how to do so. After washing her first pan of dishes she was taught how to churn butter. There was so many steps to learn when doing the chores that Aunt Harriet had thought so dreadful to impose upon children, but Betsy began to feel pride in knowing she was capable of performing useful tasks.
The Putneys had a large dog, and Betsy was terrified of dogs, but over time she discovered that at least some of them were friendly and gentle around people. And she began to understand that Frances had been teaching her to be afraid of all the things that Frances had feared.
She soon grew to care for Uncle Henry and Aunt Abigail, but Cousin Ann seemed so stern,and appeared to think of nothing except endless work, that Betsy did not like her.
Betsy was enrolled in a little one-room school where children of all ages learned together. Since she could read so well the teacher asked Betsy to help a little girl named Molly by listening to her reading lessons. Molly soon looked to Betsy as her protector, and when Molly’s mother became ill, and the girl was to be sent to stay with relatives who didn’t want her, Betsy asked Cousin Ann to request that Molly’s father let the girl stay with the Putneys. When the father gave his permission, it was the first time that Betsy wasn’t the youngest, and the weakest, person in her home.
Betsy was growing strong and healthy, and she loved living at Putney Farm. During the summer her birthday fell during the time of a local fair, and for a special treat she and Molly were allowed to attend the fair with a neighbor family. Unfortunately the neighbors met up with some friends, and vague plans were made for the two girls to return to Putney Farm with another neighbor. But there were poor communications, and Betsy and Molly ended up being abandoned, with not enough money to pay to ride home on the cars. (I’m not sure if “the cars” referred to a railroad or trolley line.)
Betsy was still just a young girl who’d been raised to be frightened of everything, so she wanted to cry and give into despair. But she had to take care of even-younger Molly, who mustn’t be allowed to know how much danger they were in. Betsy set out to earn some money within a couple of hours, and whenever her offers of work were refused she kept asking herself what Cousin Ann would do, and continued on.
I won’t tell how Betsy found the means to get home after the fair adventures, but will say that when the girls did arrive back in their neighborhood she learned that all of the Putneys, even stern Cousin Ann, had been frantic with worry, and all were proud of resourceful Betsy.
The time finally came when Great-Aunt Harriet’s health was restored, and a letter informed Betsy that Aunt Frances would be coming to take her away from Putney Farm. Betsy didn’t want to leave, but it would be rude to tell that to Frances. If only a way could be found for her to stay without distressing the relatives you’d taken such pains to raise her for so many years …
Understood Betsy was first published in 1917 and, while it has remained in print for generations, it is not widely read today. Author Dorothy Canfield supposedly wrote the tale to promote the value of Marie Montersorri’s learn-by-doing teaching methods, but it is an amusing page-turner, and doesn’t come off as being a moral-of-the-story novel.
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