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).
No girl will benefit from being like Elsie Dinsmore. All the poor child asks for is love from her father which should be unconditional. Teaching kids, especially girls, to blindly obey is asking for trouble. I think Horace purposefully acts like a tyrant and takes advantage of the girl’s interest in Christianity and struggle to do right. If Elsie were a child today, she would be placed on meds for anxiety. Laura Ingalls did not suffer through this.
The Elsie Dinsmore books have passionate defenders as well as passionate despisers. Each person is entitled to his own opinion. However, it could be argued that there will be situations in life where one should receive unconditional love but doesn’t, so how does he or she deal with it? Even in these situations the Bible says, “Children, obey your parents.” And Elsie doesn’t blindly obey but strives to hold fast to the principles of Christianity in spite of what her father does. Yes, Elsie might be placed on meds for anxiety today, but far, far, far too many other children are unnecessarily placed on meds for anxiety today too. Of course, Laura Ingalls did not suffer through this because she lived in a different situation, but different books will describe different situations and how to react to them. If you don’t like the Elsie Dinsmore books, don’t read them. I wasn’t necessarily endorsing them, but I still found the one I read a whole sight better than a lot of the dreary drivel that passes for modern children’s literature.
What I find more disturbing is not the book itself but how certain faiths think of Elsie as role model for Christian behavior. This book was written in 1867. We are not in 1867 any more. Who wants their daughter to cry so much and be a doormat? I would not allow a child to be treated like Elsie or treat a child as such. And Elsie is how old-8? I could understand 15,16 even twelve but 8 and trying to be such a perfectionist isn’t real. IMO it is more dangerous than other children literature you call drivel. It is good for historical value and comparison with modern literature but to actually follow this is asking for failure.
To each his own. “Some faiths” might find your views quite disturbing also. Just because we are “not in 1867 any more” doesn’t mean that we should automatically reject those values that were true in 1867. I don’t think that anyone actually thinks that everything that happened in the book is some kind of model for today. I suspect that everyone would agree with you that children should NOT be treated as Elsie was nor should it even be allowed. What I understand is the meaning of the book and the value that some see in it is that when we do suffer mistreatment (over which we probably have no control), we shouldn’t react with threats and revilings but should submit ourselves to God’s will and simply try to do our best–as Elsie did, and as Jesus did leaving us an example (1 Peter 2:21-23). You may not agree with that, and if you wish to continue your “anti-Elsie Dinsmore” rages, you are free to do so. Just don’t imply that people who do like the books are guilty of some dark and sinister motivation. I’ve heard of families who “follow this” in the sense of learning the good values that they found in the book and didn’t experience failure but were quite successful.
Nwo I am almost done with “Elsie’s Girlhood’ . It is some better than the first two. Horace changes and Elsie doesn’t cry as much. Horace still expect unquestioning submissiveness and treats Elsie like a child though she is a young lady. She will not do anything without his permission even eating snacks at party. The only thing I gave Horace credit for is saving her from that awful Egerton character who only wanted her money.
Elsie is literary drivel. Unlike Laura Ingalls, Elsie lived a privaleged life. More of us can relate better to Laura and she was a real person, too. There is a difference in morals and legalism. Jesus refused to follow the legalistic rules of the Pharisees. What I mean by it is no longer 1867 is women have come a long way. We are actually recognized for our brains now and refuse to be doninated by male authority. In other words, I respect you if you respect me and recognize me for the person I am and not a submissive robot. However, a few Pharisee like groups are trying to turn back the clock. Furthermore, Christ sets the example not some fictional sappy character. Never cared for Married with Children but I love the Simpsons. Not something I would copy but they don’t mind poking fun at humam imperfections.
Obviously different people have varying views of the Elsie Dinsmore books. All I’m going to say in response is that it’s very easy to assume that since it’s not 1867 any more everything that’s happened since is necessarily better, that the “long way” that women have come is always acceptably in God’s sight, and that everyone who has a view that is not the same as yours is a legalistic Pharisee. You may not necessarily believe all those assumptions, but many people do.
My mother, born in 1905, was forbidden to read the Elsie books by her mother, a highly educated woman who was also the daughter of a Congregationalist minister who had been run out of the South after the Civil War for teaching freedmen. MY grandmother felt that not only the rigid Protestantism of the books but their deplorable racism (OK Elsie saves a slave from a whipping but she goes on treating blacks badly–she is NICE to them OK? but it is pretty nauseating for her to comfort Aunt Chloe by telling her that in heaven she won’t be black) was pernicious. It is interesting that I read a while back of another woman my mother’s age who was also forbidden to read them. The result was that when I found a cache of them at a friend’s house my mother and I read them avidly–and were totally disgusted by the sloppy syrupy style and the viciously narrow viewpoint. I was about ten at the time. Elsie is a nasty prig, and marrying her off to her father’s best friend was something I realized was pretty sick even when I first read the books. Freud, anyone? Ugh!
Again, some strong Bible believers hate the Elsie Dinsmore books while other equally strong Bible believers like them. To each his own. What some people see (through 21st century eyeglasses) as racism, others simply see as reflecting the attitudes of the times to give us a historical view of how things used to be. All I can say is that when I read the first volume, I didn’t see all the “evil” and “sickness” in the story that others claim to see. Sometimes, people just find what they are already looking for.
I believe the Elsie Dinsmore books are not at all disgusting or nauseating. I have to say they really changed and inspired my life from cold and heartless to more sympathetic and more closer to God than I ever was. I’m 14 years old, soon to be 15, and I am still amazed when I read these classic books. And I enjoy reading her legacy through her daughter, Violet Travilla. These classics not only changed my viewpoint on life, but they also gave me a sense of trust and faith in God that I never felt before, it’s like I feel more secure now!