Author: Dorothy Canfield Fisher
First Read: Stadium Elementary School
As the book opens, Elizabeth Ann is a sickly, shy, and scared nine-year old. At six months old, after her parents' death in a car crash, she is adopted by her father's aunt Harriet and Harriet's daughter Frances, who believe they are rescuing the poor mite from her strict New England family on her mother's side. Frances, who Elizabeth Ann also calls "Aunt," immediately throws herself heart and soul into raising the orphan child, joining a Mother's Club and reading all the child-rearing literature she can get her hands on.
Today we would peg Aunt Frances as "a helicopter parent," but she does so much more damage: in her well-meaning attempts to nurture the little girl (revealing, in one of Fisher's asides, that Frances never thought her mother took enough of an interest in her), she has projected all her fears and prejudices onto the child. Elizabeth Ann can't go to school and back without being walked by Aunt Frances, takes lessons she doesn't want, and is afraid of nearly everything (especially that Aunt Frances is). She is literally smothered with love by a woman who secretly feels unloved. Then one day when Aunt Frances calls the doctor for Elizabeth Ann, Aunt Harriet makes the mistake of coughing. Next thing the sensitive child knows, Aunt Frances is absorbed in caring for her mother and planning to get her to a warm climate (the cough being indicative of tuberculosis, I'm pretty sure), while leaving Elizabeth Ann with some distant cousins who don't even want her.
But it is here at the end of chapter one that fate intervenes: Elizabeth Ann's cousins are in quarantine. With nowhere else to go, they decide to send her to the last place she would ever choose: to Vermont to live with "the awful Putney cousins" who actually force children to (gasp!) do chores like they are hired hands! Before she knows it, the little girl is on a train, on a cold January day, heading to meet three of the villains of her childhood nightmares, her mother's aunt Harriet and her Uncle Henry, and daughter Cousin Ann.
Yet Elizabeth Ann doesn't know that this will be her liberation. Once at Putney Farm, she will find confidence, health, and self-esteem as she is given the freedom to discover the world without the stultifying embrace of Aunt Frances. When Uncle Henry hands her the reins of the farm wagon and asks her to drive the team of horses home from the train depot, she is on her way in more ways than one.
The rest of the novel is filled with her delightful discovery of the farm, a new pet cat, a new school and classmates, the tiny child Molly for whom she will become a protector, and even charitable gestures like helping an impoverished classmate. With her we discover the joys of the one-room school, sugar-on-snow, and antique dolls, and some of those "awful chores" turn out to be fun (like making applesauce) and educational (like making butter in a dairy that was around during the Revolutionary War). Most importantly, she is embraced by a love which is total but not oppressive. As the story ends, she must make a difficult decision about what to do with the rest of her life.
Just writing about this book makes me smile. Yes, for today's audience, the narrative may be a bit stilted. But Betsy's story will eventually make you cry and cheer.