Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Excavating A Genre 2 - Coping with Understood Betsy

(This series starts with Part 1 - The Book List)

When I was a kid, I had access to lots of dusty old books with no jacket copy, and no indication of what the book was about.  I also had access to lots of discarded paperbacks of all ages.  My dad was a book hoarder.  So were most of the other people I knew.  We were the sort of people to buy books from used books sales which offered "Fill a grocery bag for a dollar!"  My schools tended to have stacks of books just lying on counters for kids to pick up.

We also had a farm house far in the distant country where we went during the summers (and sometimes winters -- though I didn't really have central heat).  That farm house came full of books.  OLD books.  Weird books. But also fun books. It was there I discovered Trixie Belden, for instance.

Combing through the silt for nuggets of gold was a favorite pastime of mine in those long dull summers.

I honestly don't recall how I came across Understood Betsy.  I can't even call it one of my favorite books.  All I know is that it struck a tone that stayed with me.  It was a tone I found in other books that weren't necessarily my individual favorites, and looking back on it, I responded to those books the way one responds to a genre.

It was the archetype.  The pattern of the books over all, rather than the details of the individual books, that grabbed my imagination.  Some of them rose above.  Some did not.

So the experiment in this series of posts is an attempt to dig up the bones of that genre and study it.

Understood Betsy

Recently I rediscovered this book, and re-read it.  I found the first chapter to be a slog, but the rest more and more interesting -- partly because as a grown up, I could see why it got past my "wholesome" filter.

As a child I hated wholesome.   Well, I could abide a certain amount of it.  I could abide some quaint and out-of-date attitudes.  And when I stumbled across Understood Betsy I expected it to be one of those stories about the superiority of wholesome, clean-living country folk, vs. city sophisticates.

And in some sense, I was right.  That's kind of what it's about on the surface.  And yeah there is definitely a preachy agenda to this book. But it was kind of a subversive agenda.  It wasn't about the superiority of clean-living or country life.  It was about approach to life. In particular, the raising of children.

The author, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was a radical education reformer.  She was a big proponent of the Montessori method, in particular.  So the book was really about how you should give kids things to DO, and not smother them with either protection or rules. Let 'em grow naturally.

The agenda is not what appeals about the plot, however.  Frankly, if that's all there was too it, it would not have become a classic, liked by people with all sorts of beliefs about child rearing and wholesomeness. (Including the very strict church-going mother of a friend of mine who loved that book, and was shocked when hippies said they'd liked it too.)

The agenda, though, did something for this book that made it ring true to a theme of lots of great children's books -- and books for adults too.  IMHO, that's what makes it kind of a model for the "genre" I'm digging up.

The Story

Betsy -- or at the beginning, Elizabeth Ann -- is an orphan who was raised by a pair of aunts who were the 1910s equivalent of modern "helicopter parents" -- smothering, anxiety-ridden, indulgent.  The aunts learned their parenting skills via the latest modern book on How To Raise A Child.  And went after raising Elizabeth "right" with an OCD fervor.  (One of the things they wanted more than anything was for Elizabeth Ann to feel "understood" -- something they simply never managed -- hence the title.)

So by the time Elizabeth Ann is nine years old, she is a sweet neurotic who is afraid of everything and unable to do anything.

And then disaster happens: one of the aunts becomes ill and the other has to take care of her, and Elizabeth Ann has to be sent, entirely on her own, off the horrible, crude, country cousin side of the family.  She has been raised all her life to believe these people to be ignorant and strict and mean.

Turns out they're relaxed, laissez-faire sorts of folks.  But still scary because... they expect Betsy (as they call her) to do things for herself -- and don't worry over it at all!  Like they think she can do things for herself.

My favorite scene is when Betsy is picked up at the train station by her "much feared Great-Uncle Henry" with a horse and wagon.  As soon as they get on the road, he turns the reins over to Betsy to drive, because he's got some "figurin'" to do and he needs to concentrate on his accounts book and pencil.  She is in a panic, but dutiful and obedient, so she throws her all into figuring out how to manage this plodding, relaxed horse, makes what she considers to be horrible mistakes and barely manages to fix them. All the while her cousin sits figuring and doesn't seem to notice at all.

And that's kind of a mini-version of the whole story.

It's really a story of discovery -- which was my first instinct in naming this genre, but I think that's more of an umbrella category.

Throughout the story Betsy is faced with various situations in which she doesn't know what to do or what to think, and she has to figure it out.  She learns that she can deal with these; She can deal with life.  And as she develops into a fully autonomous human being, one of the things she is faced with is being lost while being responsible for others.  The climax of the story has her stranded far from home with a smaller child in her care.  But this time she has the inner resources to come up with a multi-step plan and get them both home safely.

And she has the confidence to do it.

The Great Theme of Childhood: Coping

The author of this book might have intended it to be the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of childhood education -- which I don't think it did -- but the reason it became a classic because it reflected one of the great tropes of childhood: Coping.

In some sense, all fiction is about coping with things we are not prepared for.  But as adults, we're long past the stage where basic life is a series of crises. We don't even remember that for a baby, a game of peek-a-boo is a high tension suspense story.  If you can't see Mommy's face, she's GONE! You're alone! Who will feed you? Who will love you?

That level of life is pretty stable, and we have some control over it. So for adults, most fiction deals on a more sophisticated, and varied, smaller issues that we have to cope with.   Achieving, competing, loving, healing.  We only get back to that elemental "survival" aspect in a disaster story.  Which, of course deals with extraordinary circumstances.

But for children -- and somewhere deep in our psyche, all of us -- coping with simple existence is still new, and it's still an every day thing.  While most kids are allowed many choices by their parents, they really don't control where they sleep and what they eat and what they wear.  They know full well all their choices are subject to approval.

Now, we think of this as something limiting and bad. Something to strive against.  Wouldn't it be nice if we were older? sing the Beach Boys. 

At the same time, though, having a parent making decisions and taking responsibility is safety.  Even if you can choose for yourself, even if you fight to choose for yourself, you can still fall back on Mom and Dad and teacher and authority.  It's much more comfortable to have the right to choose if you have experienced back up who can give you guidance if you want it.

And what about all those decisions you never wanted to make?  The ones you didn't know you needed to make because they were made by others in the background?  One anxieties of growing up is that, you begin to realize how much more there is to the world than you thought, and your parents are out there managing it for you.  And one day, they're not going to do that any more.  You're going to have to do this on your own.

For children, there is a very thin veneer between real life and the fictional life of the lost orphan.

And that risk continues into adulthood: you might carve out a pretty steady and relatively comfortable existence for yourself. That is, not necessarily comfortable in form (because your house may be too small, and your bed used and lumpy) but it's still comfortable in understanding. You know when the rent is due. You know where the bed is, and where the lumps are.  You are familiar with most of the problems that will come up and have some idea of what to do to handle them.

And yet....  we're adults.  Most of us understand that there are things in this world we have no idea how to handle.  Most of us, even in the U.S., are one major illness or accident away from being homeless.  If you travel, you're one wrong turn from being lost in a bad neighborhood where you don't speak the language.

That's where the appeal of disaster and survival stories come from, but our anxieties are broader and also subtler than that.  Moving to a new house or taking a new job -- especially if it means moving across the country -- can make you feel a little like a lost orphan.  You're tearing loose of your resources, going into unknown territory. You don't know if it will turn out your have a psycho-boss or psycho-neighbor.  You don't know if you'll fit into the new local culture.  You're bound to make some faux pas.  You have no idea the consequences of a small mistake -- will it be smiled at and ignored, or will it cost you new friends?  Or worse?

And you have no idea if someone will hand you the reins and expect you to drive the wagon, when you have never seen a horse up close before.

All the same, we have learned, through the years, that we can survive unknown disasters. We have survived the emotional roller-coasters of adolescence. We've been lost, we've had near misses. We've had grief, we've mourned.  We've had to deal with unexpected bureaucracy, we've made mistakes and had to pay penalties.

Kids aren't sure of these things, so pure survival of these is a bigger theme in children's stories, but even as adults, the achievement of coping with the unexpected and mastering new skills is still an incredibly satisfying trope.

So my first thought about the models for this "genre" is that this is the overriding theme of the kind of story.  (As I pull apart other stories, there may be others, but I certainly think this is what tied the stories together to me.)

But theme does not a genre make.  It doesn't even make a trope.  It's just the meaning of a set of similar tropes.

I think I need to look at a few more titles before I get a sense for form.  Next time I will look at a couple of other stories that come to mind on the same model, and see if I can pull out a few more tropes that they have in common.  And I'm also going to talk about a related literary genre, the Picaresque story.  While it is different in theme, it is often similar in form.

See you in the funny papers.


Lee McAulay said...

Great post, Camille! I'm with you on the old house filled with books - to a child who loves to read, that's a goldmine. So many treasures, so many fabulous places to go, adventures to take, and still be home safe.
Something we all need as adults, even if it's just knowing where your lumpy bed is.
Love this new series!

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Lee.

The other thing about the old books in the old house; a lot of those books are not adventures, are not for kids, and are just weird or boring or whatever -- but they are like relics or artifacts. In some ways, just as cool as finding the old pair of goggles, or tool which you can't figure out what it's for.

I suppose that's a really "meta" element of this: the stories I am reflecting on mirror the experience of discovering the books themselves.

chacha1 said...

I still love to find a stash of old weird books. :-) We found some very weird ones clearing out my FIL's hoard ... including and early 1900s guide to wrestling and jiu-jitsu!

"Understood Betsy" is one I've never read, but it sounds like it has bits of "Heidi" and "The Good Master."

The Daring Novelist said...

Heidi is definitely one of the classics that follow the pattern. If I didn't have that on the first list, I'll definitely refer to it later. (Haven't read "The Good Master.")