Guest Post: An Outsider Reads Elsie Dinsmore, Part I

A Guest Post by Tracey

My name is Tracey and I write a blog describing my religious journey through local churches. In my blog surfing I became interested in the Elsie Dinsmore series, so I borrowed books 1 and 2 from the library. Functionally, I found them more like one long story than two, so I read them in succession. I would like to present an adult, outside (non-homeschooled non-evangelical) perspective on these first two books. The books I have read are, as far as I can tell, the original versions. They are called Elsie Dinsmore and Elsie’s Holidays at Roselands.

Let’s begin with a chapter by chapter look at the first part of book 1.

Chapter 1—Introducing Elsie

In chapter one we meet Elsie. She is a timid little thing with fragile emotions who seems really very put upon indeed. The other five kids in the house AND their private tutor torment Elsie constantly. Actually Elsie is the daughter of an elder brother to this sibling group. Her classmates are her aunts and uncles. Elsie’s mom (also named Elsie) and dad (Horace) getting married caused a big scandal for Horace’s family, because they wed so young. And something about Elsie Sr. having the wrong kind of wealth; it comes from trade. To deter the new marriage from blossoming, grandpa Dinsmore (Horace’s dad) sent his 17 year old married boy to the North and then to Europe. Eight years later he’s still there. Meanwhile, Elsie Sr. gave birth to Elsie Jr., then died of a broken heart a week later. So Elsie’s been stuck with the Dinsmore clan ever since with only her dear Mammy (her slave nurse) to raise and love her.

In this chapter we also meet Arthur, Elsie’s chief tormentor. And we meet Rose Allison, a family friend from the North that we learn is Christian just like Elsie! They talk about God and Jesus for awhile and the chapter ends on a happy note. I found it striking that the character I was drawn to most was the justice-loving Lora, the only one of the siblings that doesn’t treat Elsie like trash. I really don’t relate to Elsie, she’s such a little mouse.

Chapter 2—”jes de same as if I was white”

In chapter 2 we get to meet Mammy, and immediately a few questions spring to mind:

  1. If Mammy raised Elsie why don’t they sound the same when they talk? This story is set in the South, sometime before the Civil War. The slaves wait on the family’s every need but are referred to as “servants,” and are given adjectives like sable, dark, dusky, Negro. And they all talk in heavily accented English. So why doesn’t Elsie have this accent?
  2. How does Mammy understand so much about Christianity? She is called “entirely uneducated” yet she has memorized all kinds of bible verses and articles of faith such that she can remind Elsie just what Jesus asks of her at any given time.
  3. If this woman really raised Elsie, why doesn’t Elsie view her as a mother? And while we’re on the subject of parents, why is Elsie so attached to her absent father? As someone interested in adoption, I may one day parent a child who is not biologically of my body nor perhaps of my race. The constant obsession with biological parenthood in this book drives me mad. Mammy is Elsie’s mother if anyone is. And Horace doesn’t deserve to be called her father.
  4. Why is this book in my local library? The racism in here is very bothersome. Mammy talks about her love for Jesus because “He loves me jes de same as if I was white . . .” While technically true that Jesus loves black people just as much as white people, there’s no reason to frame it this way . . . unless you believe black people are less deserving of love. It sounds like the author does.

The other important thing that happens in chapter 2 is an incident with Arthur. He asks (demands) Elsie to loan him money to buy a splendid little toy ship he wants. Elsie says she’s going to think about it and he calls her stingy. Then she buys it for him outright. In return he stops teasing her. For a while. So I guess the price of kindness is a sailboat.

Chapter 3—Papa and Travilla

This chapter introduces Elsie’s dad who finally returns home from Europe and Mr. Travilla, a friend of his since boyhood. On their very first meeting Elsie chokes, finding herself unable to run up to her father and just give him a hug. Her father remarks how terrified she seems and she flees the scene sobbing. Get used to this folks because this is how their dynamic persists for a long while yet. Also get used to the sobbing. Elsie cries for maybe 80% of the time.

Mr. Travilla is an interesting character who immediately takes a liking to Elsie. It is in this chapter that he first suggests he wants her as his own daughter. I know those of you who have read the entire series will find this particularly strange given their adult relationship later.

Chapter 4—More awkward interactions

Elsie and her father continue in this newly established pattern of him disapproving of nearly everything she does and of her responding with tears and attempts to not be “naughty”. It is noticeable that not only is Elsie in agony over having displeased her papa, she is in agony that by doing so she is being wicked, which displeases Jesus. Never mind that Papa’s orders are arbitrary, closed to questions and sometimes given after the event.

The whole rattlesnake incident pisses me off too. Horace tells Elsie never to go into this large meadow on their grounds.

“Why, Papa?” Elsie asks.

“Because I forbid it,” he responds.

Okay, there’s a giant rattlesnake down in the meadow. Elsie is eight and she’s old enough to understand what that means. Heck, telling her would probably help her remember the warning better, so she wouldn’t get into trouble. But Horace has to control Elsie in every way so he forbids the questioning of any command, and then punishes Elsie when she forgets and goes in the meadow. Then the author holds up the finding subsequent and killing of that snake as proof Horace was right to keep his daughter in the dark. After all, he was only doing it for her protection. I find myself wondering who this author was and why she was writing.

The other thing about this chapter is the weirdest scene in the book so far: Papa takes Elsie on a visit to Mr. Travilla’s house. After dinner Travilla finds Elsie reading in the library. He tells her to put away her book, but Elsie just wants to finish the book before Papa takes her home. Travilla responds, “He is not to take you away. I have made a bargain with him to let me keep you . . . call me papa in the future.” This freaks Elsie out immensely and she runs crying to her dad. At this point, if it were me I’d run too, but not to the dad who I barely know. It’s obvious this is some weird joke that only Travilla is in on, and no one else found funny. What possesses Travilla to do this? No idea. I did not know what to make of this part. I assume it’s just more “biological father = true father” crap.

Chapter 5—The Watch

This chapter mostly focuses on another incident with Arthur in which a watch belonging to grandpa Dinsmore is found broken. They hold a short trial/interrogation in a room of the house and evidence is given and witnesses questioned. Arthur, cast as the villain, is of course to blame. Elsie is the key witness and fears Arthur will plot revenge. Papa happens to be on Elsie’s side at the moment, so he tells her, “Don’t be frightened daughter. I will protect you.” All well and good until . . .

Chapter 6—Nope you are naughty

Elsie somehow does wrong again and her father shuts her out again. This time it’s because she loosed a hummingbird he had trapped under glass (hello, it could die in minutes in there) thinking it was Arthur’s doing. She is punished for not being able to read Horace’s mind. Also, who collects hummingbirds?

Chapter 7—Bread and water

Elsie still hasn’t learned divination or how to be a stepford child. She fails a single lesson at school and Horace makes her have bread and water for dinner. You know, it’s really getting remarkable how much of this book is dramatic dialogue. So much “Oh Papa!” and “You cry too much” and “I am terribly naughty.” Stop writing the whines and can we please get back to some story already?

Chapter 8—The workbook incident

So this whole business with the school workbook is something of a turning point in the story. Elsie manages to write cleanly and legibly for a month in her school workbook. She can’t wait to have Papa see that she isn’t naughty after all! Unbeknownst to her, Arthur has found the workbook and surreptitiously stained and written in it to make it appear messy. The work is so sloppy, (and Horace is such a maniac) that Horace decides to really punish Elsie. He drags her by the arm into his room and picks up a horsewhip. Just then Lora rushes in, just in time to save Elsie from a beating she didn’t deserve! Lora says that Elsie’s workbook is always neat and she wouldn’t lie about not knowing the scribbles were there. Horace immediately believes Lora (for some reason) where he did not believe Elsie a moment ago. He calls Elsie “My darling, my own precious child!” and apparently he’s pretty upset that he almost beat her half to death for no reason.

He begins to treat Elsie with tooth-decaying affection, spending most of his spare time with her. He lavishes epithets of love on her and scolds anyone who mistreats her. So of course this means Arthur gets what’s coming to him about the notebook. Now that Elsie is in her father’s good graces, what could go wrong?

To be continued . . .

Tracey blogs at The Church Project.

Guest Post: Alix on Civility and Confrontation
Guest Post: A Courtship Story, Part 7: I Do
Guest Post: A Courtship Story, Part 6: The Countdown
Guest Post: A Courtship Story, Part 4: The Singing Again
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • wanderer

    The dad seems like a psychotic abusive freak; and his friend Travilla gives me a pedophile vibe. Fundies let their kids read these books?

    • Alice

      Seriously! I thought for a second there that Travilla was going to kidnap her and stuff her in a basement. “Your daddy doesn’t want you anymore. I’m your new daddy now, Bahahaha!”

      Also, was getting married at 17 actually scandalous at that time? I thought everyone got married young back then. Or was the Southern upper class different?

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        No, 17 was young, especially for a man of his class, who would have been expected to wait until he had built up some businesss prospects or at least come into his majority (and inheritance) before he married. (I’m guessing the latter in a plantation society, but I don’t know as much about the South.) It’s a common misconception that everyone was getting married when they were teenagers in Ye Olden Days. I think it comes from the fact that the average age of marriage was so young in the baby boom era that people just assume that people must have been married even younger before then. But actually, people were older–the baby boom era was an exception to the rule, not an example of it. A middle-class-or-above girl would not even be considered marriageable until she had made her debut to society, which was customarily when she was 18, maybe 17. So some women got married at that age but it seems like early 20s were more common (and later was far from unheard of).

        Travilla creeps me the hell out too but what’s kind of creepier is that the father-figure-to-romantic-prospect plot line wasn’t invented in the Elsie series. It shows up in both “Bleak House” and, to a lesser extent “David Copperfield” by Dickens. (In DC, the couple in question–where the husband is old enough to be the wife’s grandfather and she openly talks about how he had been a father figure to her when she was young–are held up as having a good and loving marriage and they serve as a major catalyst for David’s realization that his marriage to Dora Spenlow was hasty and ill-advised. So these characters are kind of important yet have been edited out of every filmed adaptation of the book I’ve seen. You obviously have to make choices about what you keep in when you’re adapting such a long book but I also think that the whole subplot is just waaaaay to squicky for modern audiences–and thankfully, David ends up in a non-creepy relationship in the end!) This seems to have been some kind of romantic ideal which worked, I guess, because the model of marriage in the 19th century was already so paternalistic and the view of women was that they were pretty much perpetual children.

      • Ibis3

        *spoiler for Bleak House*

        It should be noted that in Bleak House, Esther doesn’t marry Jarndyce, who proposes out of affection, certainly, but partly because she’s disfigured & poor (i.e. slim marriage prospects) and he didn’t want to leave her without means. He’s perfectly happy when she marries closer-in-age Dr. Woodcourt for love.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Oh yeah, his proposal definitely has a lot to do with his desire to care and look out for her, but it still would have been a marriage of a very young woman to a much older man who knew her in childhood and is the closest thing to a father she’s ever known. My point is just that this is seen as perfectly appropriate and good and noble on Jarndyce’s part (and Jarndyce is an unfailingly good and noble character throughout), whereas today that would be seen as super creepy. And yes, thank God Esther ends up in a love match with Dr. Woodcourt–Dickens was consistently a big fan of love and romance. The Strongs of David Copperfield are probably a better example of that kind of relationship being held up as an ideal (not necessarily the ideal but one ideal) because that marriage actually happens (or has happened) and is depicted as happy and an example to be emulated. I’m just pointing out that a lot of what is squicky about Elsie Dinsmore is common in the larger world of Victorian literature, including that which was written by far superior authors–because don’t get me wrong, I love Dickens! And if you consider what Victorian gender politics were like, the whole idea of father-figure-turned-husband is not that strange. Which of course just means that Victorian gender politics were/are yucky.

      • Niemand

        It also shows up in Jane Austen’s writing. Emma marries a man who helped raise her. Ew. I love Austen in general, but ew.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        True, but at least they pretty much interact as adult friends, despite the fact that he was around in her childhood. But yeah, there are a lot of things in Emma that kind of make me a tad uncomfortable. P&P is far and away my favorite.

      • sylvia_rachel

        My impression is that women often married quite a bit younger than we would consider normal, but men, as you say, seldom did, because your new family has to have something to live on. When couples waited for a long time between getting engaged and getting married, it was usually because the man needed to get himself established as [whatever] and/or, depending on class etc., because they were waiting for someone, usually him,* to inherit some money for them to live on. So it wouldn’t have been particularly scandalous for a 17-year-old girl to marry a man in his mid- to late twenties, say, but two teenagers running off together, heck yeah.

        Disclaimer: I know quite a bit about social history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, from doing book research and ferreting out obscure-to-me references in period novels, but very little about the corresponding period in the US. So I may be way off.

        *Although of course there’s also the penniless-upper-class-twit-marries-wealthy-heiress-whose-father-got-rich-in-business dynamic, which got more and more popular as owning a buttload of land became less and less lucrative and keeping up a huge-ass manor house became more and more expensive…

      • Tsu Dho Nimh

        “the father-figure-to-romantic-prospect plot line wasn’t invented in the Elsie series”

        it was fairly common in real life – Eliza Dawson married Archibald Fletcher, who was 43 to her 17 when they met. She was no Elsie Dinsmore, and I recommend reading her biography if only for her being accused of having revolutionary sentiment and practicing with a mini-guillotine on the household’s poultry.

      • Tracey

        I figured that part was propaganda about the proper difference in age. ‘The man ought to be older.’ Or something. I did not read all these awful books, but I understand later there is another failed relationship of two youths and a perfect relationship in which the man is far senior.

      • Alice

        I read a little bit last night when Elsie is a grown woman, and at one point she tells her father that she can’t decide if she loves him or Mr. Travella (her lover) more. She concludes that she loves them the same, just differently. I see the point she was making, but it’s still icky. Why compare the two in the first place?

      • B.E. Miller

        17 was pretty young. I remember someone in the Little House books getting married at 13, but they were farming folks. Upper class folks didn’t get married until their 20s.

      • Alice

        Yeah, I read a lot of historical fiction about people in the working class when I was growing up, so that combined with all the fundamentalist revisionist history I’ve been exposed to in the past probably threw me off. :)

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yeah, Laura and her step-cousin hear about a local girl who has just gotten married at 13 in “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” They are around the same age themselves and both are horrified. So even in that context, it seems like it was seen as unusual and unseemly. Laura herself married at 18 and her parents were both in their early 20s when they married.

      • B.E. Miller

        I have to go look at Silver Lake again. I don’t remember Laura and her cousin being horrified, just stunned. I don’t remember who remarked that it meant the girl couldn’t play anymore. Laura said she’d rather let “Ma be Ma for a while longer.” It seemed more like they both knew how much work being a housewife and mother was, and they would rather not marry so young, because then they could still take an afternoon to ride horses and wander fields.

    • Melody Jones

      But fundies want their children to be like this. Self-sacrificing, accepting orders unquestioning, no self-confidence, no back-bone, and down for being creeped on by significantly older men. *twitch*

  • Sally

    At first when reading the description of the book, I thought it just sounded like any of many children’s books which are surprisingly tough on kids or show the harsh, unfair realities of life. But then I recognized the snake incident! I saw this series in a Christian bookstore years ago when I was homeschooling my kids. I read a passage or two standing there in the bookstore and one of them happened to be that snake scene. I didn’t buy the books!

    There’s something about this series that’s just … icky. For me, it’s not that the child is living under difficult circumstances or that she’s treated harshly. A lot of great children’s literature has those elements. It’s the writing itself. It’s the way this story is told. It’s written as if it is propaganda for little children (maybe especially little girls) to learn a lesson. I do think we can learn great lessons from literature, but this one is written as if thats its express purpose. -A lesson wrapped in a story, rather than a story which gives us a glimpse of life which we might learn from while enjoying the richness of the story itself.

    I think I was screaming in my head in the store, “Just tell her there’s a poisonous snake in the meadow already!!!”

    • Guest

      I really can’t make heads or tails of Horace and I’ve read excerpts from and analysis of these books before. Is the lesson of the story a “meek and quiet spirit” thing were Elsie’s perfect obedience to her godless, cruel father eventually wins him to Jesus? (Because that happens, as I recall.) In that case, we’re at least not supposed to look upon him as a sympathetic character at this point in the story. But his characterization seems very inconsistent.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I really can’t make heads or tails of Horace and I’ve read excerpts from and analysis of these books before. Is the lesson of the story a “meek and quiet spirit” thing were Elsie’s perfect obedience to her godless, cruel father eventually wins him to Jesus? (Because that happens, as I recall.) In that case, we’re at least not supposed to look upon him as a sympathetic character at this point in the story. But his characterization seems very inconsistent.

    • ako

      The snake thing is creepy. It only makes sense if you adhere to the sort of extreme authoritarian mindset that makes obedience not only a virtue in its own right, but (for people of lower status, as least) the supreme virtue. Telling her about the snake would teach her about wisdom and judgement, and would actually give her more of a reason to obey her father (as it’d be an example of him making a rule to protect and benefit her). More importantly, it would make her far less likely to disobey (whether due to naughtiness or forgetfulness) and potentially die.

      But if obedience is the supreme virtue, and the best kind of obedience is absolute, unquestioning, and (to be frank) mindless, telling her about the snake undermines the point. It teaches her she has a right to think about the reason for what she’s told to do. It teaches her she’s allowed to use her own brain to question what she’s taught and expect answers from the people around her. It teaches her she’s entitled to be treated as a person, not a mindless automaton. None of that will cultivate complete and total obedience, so from an authoritarian extremist view, it’s a failure.

      • Sally

        Yes, this is the message I got from the snake passage. It was if the lesson were more important than her safety.

      • Monala

        As Stephen Colbert once joked in his pseudo-conservative persona, “Kids need to learn obedience, so you have to give them rules. But don’t give them the reasons for the rules, or else they’ll learn logic, not obedience.”

      • Conuly

        You get the same issue with What Katy Did, a book that has somewhat more mainstream appeal. (Not very much more, but a little.) Nobody told Katy why she wasn’t supposed to swing because they simply didn’t believe in giving children explanations. So she does, and when the swing breaks she is paralyzed for the course of the book and confined to her room because, y’know, moving her bedroom to a lower floor so she could get around a little would be too hard.

      • sylvia_rachel

        Oh, but, you see, she has to learn to be a better person by remaining confined to her bed for a year.

        I really liked that book when I read it as a child; I recently re-read it and found the Suck Fairy had been at it …

      • Conuly

        On the other hand, it is a fine example of the disabling attitudes of society at work.

      • Alice

        Whether this was intentional or not, the book also seemed to be punishing her for being a lively, independent girl. After she’s confined to bed for a year she’s much more docile and bland.

        I listened to this audiobook many times growing up. Between this book, Bridge to Terabithia, and the “Rockabye Baby” song, it’s a little surprising I never developed swing phobia :)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    It was standard for children of families of means to be raised more by a nurse than by their own parents and on a Southern plantation, that nurse would have been a slave. So would not have been unique in that sense and, no, she wouldn’t have spoken like a slave or regarded her nurse as her mother, nor would the nurse have regarded the children she cared for (sometimes multiple generations of one family) as her children, even if the relationship was genuinely loving. Race was a line that just was not crossed in that place and time, even though, in many ways, many of white slaveowners’ most intimate relationships would have been with the black people they owned. It was a crazy, messed up system.

    Still, I disagree with you that this means these books should not be in your library. On the contrary, I think they should be available for people to read, because this is a part of our country’s past that needs to be learned and understood. It’s just that they should be read with a critical eye. What troubles me is that it does not appear that the current patriarchal Christian purveyors of these books agree–I never seen a mention of the racism in any promotional materials. They just promote them to be read at face value, it seems. Yuck.

    • ako

      I definitely agree that they’re appropriate for libraries in the general fiction or adult section. They’re referenced a lot in other literature (often derisively), and they convey a lot about the attitude of the time.

      It creeps me out how much they’re being promoted as great literature for children. I would not hand these to a kid without an adult to talk about things like the racism, the sexism, and the father threatening to horsewhip his daughter for sloppy schoolwork.

    • Tracey

      These books were in the kids section at floor level.

      • Alix

        Well… I know that in both libraries I worked at, whether books were near the floor or not was an accident of placement based on how many books were in the section, not because books at floor level were meant to be for children of all ages. (That said, I’ve been in one library that did have a separate low-to-the-floor section for kids, so maybe yours is like that?)

        I’m also not sure where to place these books if not in the children’s fiction section, and I’m not sure I like the idea of allowing librarians to make that sort of judgment call based on a book’s moral content, regardless of how deplorable we find these. I’d rather all fiction be lumped into the appropriate categories so patrons can find them and decide, y’know? It’d be way too easy, if there were some special section for children’s-books-not-appropriate-for-kids, for books featuring gay people, say, or not enough Jesus to end up there.

        …This in no way means I think these books are good for children. I’ve never read them, but your summaries make it clear they’re deplorable. I’m just not sure libraries should be in the business of making moral judgment calls for their patrons.

      • Tracey

        I think I can agree. Getting into a banned book situation isn’t great either. I guess it’s more a question of why these books are in print.

      • Alix

        it’s more a question of why these books are in print.

        And I am right there with you on that.

    • Stev84

      Just another reason why the idea that “traditional family = 1 mother, 1 father” is so absurd. At some points in time it was also common to be raised by people in your large extended family. The nuclear family thing wasn’t really possible before the industrial revolution.

  • Smilodon, God’s cat

    I would love to have seen the high spirited Anne (with an E!) Shirley in that situation. There would have been stuffy male heads exploding all over the plantation.

    To answer a couple of your questions, Elsie would not talk like Mammy because she would have had tutors and adult family making sure she did not. Imagine the severity of the rebuke if she ever dared to “talk like a n***r.”

    Mammy would probably know a lot more about Christianity (and many other things) than her owners suspected because slaves were oppressed, but not stupid.They kept their ears open and probably knew more family secrets than the rest of the family. And even if Mammy didn’t secretly learn how to read (which was not uncommon despite harsh penalties) people in preliterate societies were able to transmit long pieces like the Iliad for generations by memorization and oral tradition. In fact much of the Bible was passed down as stories around the campfire for centuries before it was written down. Of course actual slaves emphasized Exodus and the liberation from Pharoah more than you would see in these books.

    And of course Elsie could not have thought of Mammy as her mother because “It is forbidden!!!” and she was too meek to stand up to the patriarchs.

    My hero Anne of Green Gables would have turned into an abolishionist and spirited her off to Prince Edward Island :)

    • Melody Jones

      I’d even take Emily Starr of New Moon (or *cringe cringe cringe* Millie Keith of A Life of Faith (they were still better than Elsie!!)) over Elsie. Anne as an abolitionist, sending people to Prince Edward Island is an amazing idea and would have improved everything 500096%.

    • B.E. Miller

      I would so read “Anne of Green Gables Helps Elsie Dinsmore Runaway and Become an Abolitionist.”

  • ako

    I think he was deliberately leaving the hummingbird to suffocate, and punishing Elsie for saving an animal without verifying whether or not an adult wanted to kill it.

    Elsie’s a frustrating character. I can pity her, but I can’t like her. Beyond being sadly victimized and fragile, there’s nothing to her character. She’s got that Mary-Sue quality where the author is so blatantly trying to force sympathy that I end up disliking the character out of the sheer desire not to be bullied.

    • Niemand

      There’s no reincarnation in real life, but Elsie and Horace are fictional characters and there can be reincarnation in fiction…

      Horace dies of a stroke brought on by indignation when an ex-slave tells him “no” one day. He “awakens” to find that he is now a hummingbird. In this universe, people who reincarnate as animals remember their past life, but can’t act in any way that is not consistent with a normal animal. So he can’t do much but eat nectar and fly around.

      One day Elsie’s bratty son catches him and puts him in a jar under glass. Elsie finds him and almost frees him. Then she suddenly stops. She makes a long speech about how much trouble she got in for saving a hummingbird that her father had trapped when she was young. She talks about how guilty she feels about her disobedience, especially now that her “dear father” is gone. She decides to leave the hummingbird where it is as a sort of post-hoc act of symbolic obedience. Horace slowly suffocates.

      In his next life, he is born an ant. Elsie steps on him.

  • Joykins

    Actually I think the points 1-3 about Mammy would have been more or less accurate for the South at the time. As others have pointed out, kids and nannies/nurses know the difference between nurse and parent, and the child will speak like the parent not the nurse (this is true today also. Kids do not speak the nanny’s accent, unless they consciously mimic it). As for having the verses memorized, Christianity was strong among slaves at the time (this is where Negro spirituals come from; there was a lot of identification with the slavery in Egypt and the Moses story), and, well, Mammy would have had to have (and would have wanted to) memorized the verses she was taught, because she was almost certainly illiterate and couldn’t read them on demand.

    • Alix

      Hell, memorization of bible verses is still pushed in a lot of very literate churches these days. I also think it’s somewhat easy to underestimate just how ubiquitous the bible/Christianity was – it’s not just slaves who would’ve had a familiarity with a lot more of the bible than most modern Americans do.

    • Gillianren

      Not according to Charles Dickens. Not the part about the kid not speaking like the nanny. According to Charles Dickens, while men in the South spoke like the upper class, educated men they generally were, the women spoke like the slaves–because the slaves were the only ones they talked to for the most part.

  • Melody Jones

    My parents tried giving me the Elsie Dinsmore books once, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. I only made it through the first one and I demanded that they get their money back because it was awful. They did, and then they came back with the Millie Keith books. Better in many, many ways than the Elsie Dinsmore books, but still oh so problematic…

    My problems with the Elsie books, as a 12 year old, had more to do with Elsie’s passivity towards her peers than anything else. In the first chapter, Arthur is sitting near Elsie in lessons and starts pinching her and hurting her and she just sits there, whimpering, asking him to stop. If you don’t believe in retaliation? You have options, like moving, or asking for help, or saying “ow” in a voice that an adult can hear. Really. If these aren’t viable options, then where you are is not a safe place, it is not a good place, it is horrific and abusive and leaving is in your best interest.

    I just couldn’t believe that anyone could function like that without serious psychological issues, and the book made it clear that Elsie was a figure to emulate and admire–not hope that she was given adequate therapy and a safe house.

    • B.E. Miller

      If these aren’t viable options, then where you are is not a safe place,
      it is not a good safe, it is horrific and abusive and leaving is in your
      best interest.

      I just couldn’t believe that anyone could function like that without
      serious psychological issues, and the book made it clear that Elsie was a
      figure to emulate and admire–not hope that she was given adequate
      therapy and a safe house.

      This is where I could see a group reading of some sections of this book with kids today. To point out to them the abuse and racism in the books. It would help kids if they know someone in an abusive situation, and they don’t realize. (That the kid they know is in an abusive situation. Sort of like Rapunzel in “Tangled”. So they know to go tell someone, if so-and-so’s mom is just like Mother Gothel.)

      • Melody Jones

        That’s actually a really good suggestion!

    • Niemand

      If these aren’t viable options, then where you are is not a safe place,
      it is not a good safe, it is horrific and abusive and leaving is in your
      best interest.

      In Elsie’s defense, where was she to go? She literally never had a safe place in her life or anyone who was really on her side. She was raised from infancy by people who held her in contempt and neglected her. I suspect that if she said “ow”, she’d be punished for disrupting the class. If she moved, she’d be punished for being “restless” and Arthur would follow anyway. Enduring the abuse and giving the abuser what he wanted to make him stop were really her only viable options. She probably dreamed of her absent father for years and hoped he would lover her and treat her well when he finally came. That might explain why she seemed to want to be with him so much-she mistook him for her dream father. And at least he showed interest in her and occasionally said he loved her. That must have felt like an improvement over the Dinsmore clan that never gave her the slightest bit of affection. I can see how she might end up bonding with her abusive father.

      • Melody Jones

        You have a very valid point that there were no other options for Elsie, but I don’t think it changes my objections in any way. While it is absolutely understandable that she gravitates towards bonding with her father because unlike the others he does offer some affection, the fact that it is portrayed as good and healthy is still an even more significant problem than its actual existence. People read to inform their ideas, and when abuse is presented as a positive thing, it is even uglier than just the straight abuse is (see: everything Debi Pearl has ever written).

        It is twenty times worse, in my opinion, when this sort of message is being directed at young people who likely haven’t seriously thought about what constitutes a healthy relationship between parent and child. In the case of those who might have been told that healthy relationships are unhealthy, and that Elsie is a role model for them, I feel like the message is even worse than that.

      • Niemand

        As you said earlier, Elsie shouldn’t be seen as a role model but as a person in bad need of rescue by CPS and a good therapist. (At least insofar as one can have such ambitions for a fictional character.) And as an example, the books are extremely dangerous. Young people should NOT be told that they need to act like Elsie. Yuck. What a horrid thing to do to a child.

    • Alice

      Very important point. I think quite a few of the children’s books that I read growing up had protagonists who were bullied and they just endured it silently because they believed (or saw) that telling anyone wouldn’t do anything except maybe make it worse. I think it’s generally a cliche plot device so the conflict doesn’t end for a long time, and of course it happens in real life too. Sometimes authority figures learned what was happening and took action, but I think generally what happened was that the protagonist eventually got revenge or was kind to the bully or the bully stopped on their own. And I can’t remember any of the protagonists voluntarily telling an authority figure (or if they do, it doesn’t work); almost always the secret is discovered another way.

      It is a terrible message to send kids in book after book. Of course, not every book needs to end with the antagonist stopped, because that is not realistic and kids can relate to the “Life is not fair” themes, but at the same time, it is a dangerous message to be constantly sending in children’s lit, and it’s important for parents to talk to their children about this.

      • Melody Jones

        Exactly! Children use media to fuel their imagination, and if they are continually offered example after example of situations where telling others either doesn’t help or actively makes things worse, they will start to internalize that message and the damaging affects of that I don’t think you can even begin to quantify.

        There is a difference between “life is not fair” and “seeking help will always be the wrong choice”, and often times children’s literature does not draw that line very clearly, if at all.

  • Karen

    I haven’t read these books, but they sound utterly meritless. I grew up on Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew.

    • Alice

      Hearing Anne mentioned several times on various comment threads made me want to reread the books as an adult, at least the first two. They’ve held up very well. I never cared much for the rest of the series, but maybe I was too young at the time, so I’ll see if that changes.

  • sylvia_rachel

    My only previous acquaintance with Elsie Dinsmore is the snake anecdote. (I can’t remember where I read it, but it was somebody’s blog, maybe even this one.) Once I’d read that, my desire to read the rest of the book — I didn’t even know it was a whole series! — was measurable only in negative numbers.

    In my character as a parent, the idiocy, the sheer malicious pigheadedness, the stupid self-righteousness, the cutting off of nose to spite face — someone who would deliberately take that kind of risk with his child (or any child), when simply by saying “Don’t go into that meadow BECAUSE THERE’S A DIRTY GREAT POISONOUS SNAKE IN THERE” he could have kept her safe, taught her something useful, and avoided the whole thing, absolutely enrages me. And the fact that this stupid asshat is a fictional hero — that is, that an author made him up, made him the horrible person he is, and thought he was the good guy, makes me, in my character as a writer, want to bite someone (the author, for preference).

    I also detest whiny, passive, helpless protagonists (Mansfield Park is my least favourite Austen for that reason — although Fanny Price has got nothing on Elsie and her ilk), especially when they’re set up as role models for little girls. Yecch.

  • saramaimon

    If you do indeed adopt; you need to be prepared that your kid me be attached to their biological roots, and even support them in this, even if according to your ideology they shouldn’t.

    Can someone please explain the role of these books in the Christian Evangelical world? are they part of some sort of promoted homeschool curriculum?

    • Melody Jones

      In our circle, they were promoted as “quality writing” that “taught wholesome lessons to girls” about “equipping young girls for womanhood” and the proper respect due your godly parents. They weren’t part of homeschool curriculum per say, they were just sold at the Christian Bookstore with appropriately old-fashioned garbed girls on the front, and in the Vision Forum catalogues, where they were marketed even more aggressively. Christian Evangelicals of the Homeschool variety honestly believe that the messages in the Dinsmore books are wholesome and healthy. I’m not sure if it’s because the parents have rarely ever read them (all of my friends read these (and the Millie) books, but only one of our parents ever read them (but their mom thought it was good so idek)) or if it is just because they don’t have any idea what healthy or wholesome actually looks like but yeah.

      They were the books that you wanted your daughters to read if you were the sort of parents to literally tell your daughters that showing their kneecaps was an invitation to be raped.

      • Elora Tatum

        “the sort of parents to literally tell your daughters that showing their kneecaps was an invitation to be raped.”

        Sorry I sniggered at this.

        My parents wanted me to read them because they were classified as good, Christian, reading for young girls. Even if they did read it I’m sure they would justify everything with it saying that it’s what God calls young girls to do/act/whatnot.

    • Sophie

      There is a difference between an adopted child wanting to know about her/his biological family and the child not viewing his/her adoptive parents as his/her real parents. I have friends with adopted children and those parents have always been very careful to talk to their daughters about where they are from, what little they know about the biological parents and to get them to participate in things that are traditional for their culture (the girls were born in China), but the girls know that the people who have loved them and raised them are their real parents.

      • Tracey

        Yes, what you describe is a common approach to it. Our agency is very good in that they are requiring us to become educated on a variety of aspects of adoption, including the need to teach the child about his or her biological roots.

      • Gillianren

        I have a deal with my daughter’s adoptive mom. If my daughter ever says, “My Real Mom wouldn’t [x],” she gets sent to me and given a chat about what life would have been like with me–including exactly why I gave her up for adoption in the first place.

      • Tracey

        It sounds like you are involved in a very open adoption. Would you be willing to tell me more about it? I am still working on education points.

      • Gillianren

        Sure! It was a private adoption, not through an agency. Her mom and dad knew a caseworker for a program I was on when I was pregnant, and she gave me their contact information. I knew by looking at their information package that these people were the right parents for my kid (at the time, too young to know the sex). We still met, and that made me even more certain.

        They live a few hours’ drive away from me. I don’t see them often, but I’m in regular contact with them. At bare minimum, I always call her on her birthday. (Though last year, she was off with her boyfriend, and we talked the day after!) She has known all along that I’m her biological mother, though I think she’s just processing that for the first time now, at fifteen. It really hasn’t come up before. I know that she is healthy, happy, and loved. She knows who and where I am. They know that I’m not ever going to swoop in and try to steal her from them, either custodially or emotionally. (She knows her biological father’s a twit, but that isn’t my doing.) It’s a wonderful arrangement. I have often regretted being in a position to have to make the choice, but I have never regretted making the choice.

  • B.E. Miller

    Re: #2, what do you want to bet that Mammy meets other blacks for a secret readin’ lesson? Especially since this is pre Civil War, and black slaves were forbidden to read.

    I want to say that I read somewhere that Fredrick Douglass said that one of his early mistresses started teaching him how to read, and her hubby got after her, telling her that being able to read would make Douglass an unsuitable slave. (It did!)

    #4, so we can look back and see what a$$holes we were (in regards to racism, Jim Crow and whatnot) and see how much we’ve changed and where we still need to change. It’s also entirely possible that by the attitudes of that time, that black folks were regarded as less deserving of love than white folks.

    Why am I getting a Horace/Travilla vibe here? Elsie has two daddies! (Okay, yeah, I know, not really possible given the time frame of the book.)

    PS, Is Elsie possibly illegitimate? Or ‘unplanned’? It might explain why she’s the ‘outsider’ to the family, why her parents married so young, or why her mother is not in the picture and her dad was sent away. Something like that might have been obvious to the adults of the time who were reading the book to the kids.

    Though I once remember reading somewhere, a Victorian statement that sometimes the first child didn’t take 9 months, but all kids after that did. (Meaning there was a lot more hanky-panky going on with ‘respectable folks’ but no one commented on it, really.)

    PS, you’re giving us a really in depth review of the books. Have you thought about going onto Wikipedia and updating the Elsie Dinsmore page?

    PPS thanks for doing this review. I’ve never had the opportunity to read the books.

    (I’ve read other Victorian books, so while Horace is controlling and creepy, it’s not uncommon with the idea that the Man of the House was to have absolute control over the women and children. In Victorian England, if a woman committed a crime, it was believed that she had been directed to do so by her hubby, and her husband could be imprisoned or worse!)

    • Tracey

      I doubt Elsie is illegitimate. The author is not subtle with the hints and foreshadowing so I’m thinking we can accept her at face value on this one.

      I liked writing about the flaws/ nonsense in these books but the reading got so difficult, (dry at times, sappy, preachy, backwards) I went a bit more concise with parts 2 and 3. How many times can one describe Elsie bursting into tears, again and again? I was pretty tired by the end.