HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Elsie Dinsmore
Author: Martha Finley
Cover Photographer: Dean Dixon
Publisher: Cumberland House, republished in 2000
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Rating: 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Finley, Martha. Elsie Dinsmore (originally published in 1867 by Dodd Mead, New York City, NY; republished in 2000 by Cumberland House Publishing Inc., 431 Harding Industrial Dr., Nashville, TN 37211). Elsie Dinsmore is an eight-year-old girl who lives with her paternal grandfather; his second wife; their six children, Adelaide, Lora, Louise, Arthur, Walter, and Enna; and a number of servants at the family plantation Roselands in or near a southern city during the 1840s. Her grandfather appears to tolerate her, but her step-grandmother positively dislike her immensely. Her younger aunts and uncles tease her mercilessly, although Adelaide and to some degree Lora are protective of her, and the children’s teacher, Miss Day, is a petty and petulant person who criticizes her harshly. However, Elsie has become a Christian and abides by Biblical teaching. She becomes good friends with a young woman who is visiting Adelaide named Rose Allison, with whom she studies the Bible until Rose returns to her home. Elsie’s father, Horace Dinsmore, is her grandfather’s oldest child by his first wife. Horace left home and married a young woman in New Orleans against his father’s wishes. However, shortly after Elsie was born her mother died and her father went to Europe, so she was sent with her nurse, an African-American woman whom she calls Aunt Chloe, to live at the Dinsmore estate. As she grows up, she longs for a close, loving relationship with her father. Yet, when Horace returns, he seems cold and unfeeling, and Elsie is afraid of him, believing that he doesn’t love her. A strict disciplinarian, he dictates inflexible rules by which she must live. On one occasion, her young uncle Arthur ruins her schoolbooks and does other damage which he blames on Elsie. Because she will not “tattle,” her father is ready to punish her severely, until she is saved by last-minute testimony from other relatives. Elsie feels she must obey the Word of God before that of her father and can obey her father only when his orders do not conflict with Scripture, while he regards this as ludicrous and in some cases as insolence. Will Horace ever come to love his little daughter? Will Elsie ever be able to have a close relationship with him?
The theme of the book is the moral conflict between Biblical principles and family loyalty. Martha Finley was born at Chillicothe, OH, in 1828, taught school in Pennsylvania, and began her literature career in 1853 as a means of supporting herself after suffering a serious injury. She produced Sunday school material and hundreds of moralistic volumes for young girls. The 27 additional Elsie books between 1867 and 1905, in which her nieces served as models for her fictionalized accounts of the beautiful, motherless heiress, went on to include the lives of Elsie’s children and grandchildren. In addition Finely also authored stories of Mildred Keith, Elsie’s second cousin, as a follow-up to the Elsie books. The Book Peddler catalogue says, “Elsie is a person of godly character and strong morals, plus the Word of God (including the message of salvation and godly principles) are key elements throughout the books.” Thus, some people love the books while others dislike them. Though we have only sons and didn’t expect them to get into Elsie books, I have always wanted to read at least the first one to see for myself. There was a discussion of them on a homeschool e-mail list several years ago. One person wrote, “We have read most of the Elsie books. I enjoyed them more than my girls did. They felt that Elsie was just too good for her own good. They got a little tired of her sweet perfection. Sometimes I found myself agreeing with them, but they are lovely stories and really get across the Christian ideal of unselfish sacrifice and putting others first. There is a lot of ‘faith only’ in them, and baptism didn’t seem to be necessary for salvation, but they generated some good discussion.” Another wrote, “I read one of them to my oldest daughter and she didn’t like it. She felt like Elsie wasn’t very much like a real person.” Yet one other person wrote, “I would highly recommend them. My 7 year old daughter and I are reading them right now and really enjoying them.”
I thought that the book ended a little abruptly, but I found out that the publishers divided the original manuscript into two complete books, so the story concludes in the sequel Elsie’s Holidays at Roselands. A new Elsie Dinsmore series of eight volumes known as “Elsie Dinsmore: A Life of Faith” has been adapted from the old one and published by Zondervan/Mission City Press in 1999. The language has been somewhat modernized, the African American characters no longer speak in stereotyped dialogue, some of Horace’s actions have been toned down, and other details considered insensitive by today’s standards have been omitted. I generally prefer originals, and the original books are now reprinted as the “Original Elsie Classics.” Study guides and other related curriculum materials are available for use with both series. As indicated earlier, not everyone will agree with some of the theological concepts underlying the story, such as salvation by faith only, total hereditary depravity, and the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. There are a few references to tobacco where the men smoked cigars or pipes. I can understand why Martha Finley’s portrayal of Elsie would not sit well with a lot of modernist, feminist, and humanist types. While I was reading the book, I admit to being somewhat frustrated myself by the treatment which Elsie was receiving by her family, Horace’s unreasonableness in some of his rules for Elsie, and Elsie’s own constantly berating herself because of her “being naughty” when she really wasn’t. But in the final analysis, I would much rather have my children finding their literary role models in people like Elsie Dinsmore as opposed to Bart Simpson or Kelly and Bud Bundy (from Married with Children).