this is one of the books we discussed in our children’s literature seminar this fall, elsie dinsmore, by martha finley. (the link takes you to the full text on project gutenberg – no need to buy it, it’s in the public realm.) i have to say that i found elsie dinsmore more than irritating and i would most certainly not give it to my child to read. i can see how it might be – at first glance – attractive to parents who want their daughters to read “christian” or “uplifting” books, but once you look at it more closely, there are many issues that make this book problematic reading.
elsie dinsmore was written in the late 1860s by a school teacher from ohio. it is the story of a girl who is basically an orphan, having lost her mother and been abandoned by her father. the interaction between elsie and her father is disturbing, as is the girl’s self-denial. if you are thinking about giving this book to a child, i suggest you read it first. don’t just read the blurb on the back, or the stickers on the front. read the whole thing. then decide if this is what you want your child to read. christian book distributors may call these books “character-building for girls” but i strongly disagree. sure, elsie has some integrity, but mostly she is a misguided, love-starved, abused and lonely girl. her “faith” is not the sort of faith you want to instill in any child.
i figured i would want to say a little more on here than just that this is an irritating book… so here’s a little essay i wrote about it:
The first Elsie Dinsmore novel describes the tension that results when a child is made to choose between parents – and between her love for her father and her love for God. The young girl Elsie has grown up without her biological mother (who is dead) and father (who has always been absent). Raised by Aunt Chloe, a kind and religious slave who also raised Elsie’s mother, Elsie has built her life around Christian ideas. She is very strict with herself, to the point that the people around her (with the exception of Aunt Chloe) find her intolerable.
When her father suddenly appears, she is so shy around him, so anxious to not upset him, that he becomes angry. The relationship between Elsie and her father is the focus of this novel just as much as her relationship to Jesus. Several times she admits to her father that she loves Jesus more than she does him, and this, too, hurts and angers him.
In many ways, Elsie has two father figures in her life, and her biological father is not one of them. She looks to her grandfather and yearns to be treated the way he treats his own little daughter, but she knows she has no place in his family. The other father figure is the Jesus Aunt Chloe constructs for her, a loving but just father who will watch over her and keep her safe. Since he is not physically present, the only real attention Elsie has ever received is that of the kind slave and, for a brief period, Miss Rose with whom she shares a spiritual friendship.
Her strictly Christian upbringing, together with her personality and physical beauty, has made Elsie the perfect child – a child the negligent Mr. Dinsmore does not deserve. Yet, when he comes into her life he expects her to trust him and love him immediately. He has come to claim her as his possession, expecting her to accept him as father and master. Elsie is ever so willing to love him and obey him, but she cannot go against Jesus, her “other father”, who has after all been there for her the whole time.
Her mother is a vague, loving memory, an angel whose image Elsie wears around her neck as much as in her own face, and this may be why her father reacts so strongly to Elsie’s shyness and fear. He tells this girl, whom he has barely met, how ashamed he is of her, how angry he is, and even decides to punish her with his riding whip – a cruel and undeserved punishment that can only barely be prevented by one of his siblings.
Elsie herself is so strict with herself that she effaces herself, her own needs, and her need for justice, for the sake of forgiveness and Christlike love: When she is wrongly blamed for breaking a valuable watch, she will not reveal who actually wrought the mischief. By the way, plagiarism is a serious offense. Even when another person is threatened — a young slave is about to be severely beaten and sent to the plantations because the other children wrongly accuse him — she can only say that she knows it was not him, but she cannot reveal who did destroy the watch. Only when her father forces her does she reveal the guilty party.
Her behaviour, in this and other instances, makes her a saintly child, a martyr almost. The father however is unholy – he is selfish, proud, strict, and intolerant of her beliefs, making her sit at the piano until she passes out because she will not play on the Sabbath. It is Elsie’s saintly nature that causes her dilemma: she loves her father dearly, despite the fact that he is a stranger and has done nothing to deserve it. She is a simple character in this novel, her only strength being her faith.