Recently I’ve begun pulling books from my bookshelves, putting them in two separate piles—the Sell On Amazon Pile, and the Get Rid Of Pile. After all, what I don’t see as anything more than junk could very well turn out to be another person’s treasure. And yet, for me, that was my biggest problem with one particular series of books—it didn’t deserve to become anyone’s treasure. In fact, it would be toxic if it did.
“Susan, what are you doing with your Elsie Dinsmore books in the hallway?” My mom had come into my room holding one of the first tenderly in her hands.
“I’m getting rid of them.”
“What? But I want my grandchildren to read them!”
I don’t, I thought to myself. But you don’t know my mom…she’s not the most open-minded person in the world. Even so, this wasn’t her choice. What’s more, I’m pretty sure that—when I actually have her grandchildren—they will still be my children, not hers.
Elsie Dinsmore is a 28-book series written in the late 1800’s by southern authoress Martha Finley, capturing the life of 8-year-old Elsie who is oddly more upright and solid in her Christian faith than nearly any other adult character portrayed in the series. We meet her in the overly-romanticized utopia of the pre-Civil War era, as a perfectly gorgeous child abandoned by her father, who left her with his family after Elsie’s mother died in childbirth. Horace, her godless father, suddenly returns to her and tries his best to make amends for his past mistakes. Elsie welcomes him with open arms; however, as we see the story progress, it becomes evident that the bulk of their relationship is caught between Elsie’s often conflicting Christian convictions and her father’s patriarchal demands for complete and utter obedience.
From the start, as an innocent 10-year-old reading the rewritten, shortened 8-book series published by A Life of Faith, I never liked Elsie’s father. He seemed heartless and far too proud to ever try to see from Elsie’s point-of-view.
One particularly troubling set of circumstances was the overly-controlling way Horace dictated what Elsie’s diet would be. He reasoned that Elsie’s health was far too delicate—much more delicate than Elsie’s cousins, anyway—to be eating the way everyone else in the house did. She would quite often be served only bread and water, and her father once angrily denied her candy she purchased herself. On one occasion, she was fed chicken, stewed fruit, and coffee–but only as a reward, alone in her bedroom, after several days of punishment for doing something her father didn’t like.
I see several red flags here.
1) If Elsie’s health is really the heart of the issue, get a doctor involved. How much does Elsie’s father really know about what to feed a delicate 8-year-old child he just came back to seize control of?
2) Is that really the issue? If so, don’t send mixed messages to your child by involving diet with punishment.
3) Don’t punish your child by withholding food from them! It’s so hard to focus on fine-tuning one’s character when you’re lacking one of the biggest means for survival. Did anyone ever stop to wonder why her health is so delicate?
And here’s the kicker—Elsie’s lesson is that her father is right. She is really a wicked child who doesn’t know anything because God has placed her father as an authority over her. Obviously, fathers know best…even when they’re not Christians. What’s more, we learn the helpful lesson that obedience is much more important than our own well-being.
I hated the second book. It is titled Elsie’s Impossible Choice, wherein Martha Finley sets Elsie in that very position. Horace asks Elsie to play the piano for him on the Sabbath, and Elsie refuses to play anything but hymns because to play music that does not glorify God would be to disobey His commands. My memory of the exact exchange is hazy because I read it so long ago, but I remember her being forced to sit at a piano for hours until her father forgot about her and she fainted and hit her head on the ground. Later that same day Elsie is brought into her father’s library, where he asks her to read him the newspaper. Elsie again says she cannot, because on the Sabbath she believes the only literature she is permitted by God to read is the Bible, along with The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. Her father objects and demands that she indeed obey him, and that if she doesn’t she is challenging his supreme authority. She apologizes to him and implores him to let her honor God by keeping the Sabbath holy.
The result is her being sent away from her father’s presence until she can submit to him and read that newspaper. However, because she continues to resist, her father suddenly leaves for Europe indefinitely, and, in an attempt to break her will, cuts off her letter correspondences with outside influences, interactions with her nurse, is locked away in complete isolation in her room, and put on a diet of bread and water. Elsie receives many angry letters from her father threatening not to return until she repents of her disobedience. It is only when someone in the household discovers Elsie incredibly sick in bed and calls for a doctor that Horace returns home, and—thinking his daughter dead—repents and commits his life to Christ.
And suddenly, all is right with the world. The bad guy’s excuse for his abusive crimes to his daughter is that he just wasn’t a Christian. He just didn’t understand. And now that he does, Elsie is only overjoyed and immediately regains her health with a few good meals and the encouragement to carry on normally.
More red flags, and this time some of them contradict. I am so confused as to what I even should think of this. Should I be bothered by the fact that her father finds military-obedience more important than her own health and happiness? Should I ask myself why Horace is so close-minded to understanding why Elsie feels this way? Should I ask why he abandons her and cruelly does every heartbreaking deed imaginable in the 8-year-old’s life just to break her will? Or should I even side with him, and ask what Vision Distortion also did?
“[…] never once is it suggested that perhaps Elsie is not wise enough at 8 years old to make her own decisions like [what she can and cannot do on the Sabbath], instead she is applauded for refusing her father. Do I expect my 8-year-old child to decide for him or herself what is right and wrong? Absolutely not. Do I expect my 8-year-old child to listen to his or her parents and obey them? Yes, I do. […] In short, a child that young does not yet have the knowledge or ability to decide the gray areas of right and wrong for himself…”
There is certainly something to be said about this. Why is Martha Finley endorsing Elsie’s disobedience to her father? How does this contradict what we learned in the first book, about how fathers—even the non-Christian ones—are always right? Elsie is pitted against her father with this “impossible choice”, when really, it is not impossible. Are we really encouraging martyrdom over reading a newspaper on a Sabbath? Is anyone else questioning the accuracy of this Christian theology? Does Jesus not declare in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”? Where in the Bible is it explained that we must not play the piano or read a newspaper, or any other book, for that matter, besides Scripture and The Pilgrims Progress? When did Elsie decide this was what God commanded her?
I do not believe that Elsie or Horace have made righteous decisions in their situation. I believe Elsie should obey her father according to Jesus’s teaching, because it’s really not harmful to her to play the piano or read an article in a newspaper on a day created for our bodies to rest. I also, however, do not agree with Horace’s immobilizing, blinded demands for perfect obedience regardless of the cost, regardless of his overwhelmingly childish, frightening means to an end that is so small in comparison. They are both flawed and neither end up honoring God.
And yet there is a happy ending, which—while it doesn’t cancel out the wrongs done in this story, that are mistakenly moralized for little girls to take out of context—is surprisingly realistic. Because nobody on earth is perfectly right. We all make mistakes and still God is able to work all things for His good, which undoubtedly Horace’s faith is.
But what a confusing message for young girls. And how unrealistic is it for Elsie to really stand by what she believes at the mere age of 8, at the cost of her possible death? Is Martha Finley setting a realistic example of what might really happen given such a situation, or is she setting her young, vulnerable readers up for failure by creating unreal standards of perfection that wouldn’t under any circumstances ever come to pass?
This is not all that is wrong with this series, however. Elsie’s perfection doesn’t stop there. In one situation in the first book, Elsie is in a carriage with her cousins and aunts that has lost its driver and whose horse is dragging it wildly down a steep hill. Martha Finley describes Elsie’s family as being absolutely panicked and terrified for their lives—which is perfectly realistic—while little Elsie sits there calmly, her inhuman faith reassuring her that if it is God’s will to die in a carriage, so be it. If not, God will surely protect them. Incredibly enough, the carriage is saved and not a scratch of harm is done to anyone, and everybody is busy demanding why Elsie was not in any way afraid. Angelically, she tells them that she simply trusts God.
And right there, not only is everybody else’s fear invalidated as a mere lack of faith in God, but the point is made that Elsie is holier than everybody else for being calm and fearless. Those who were afraid for their lives were also questioning God’s will, whereas, perfect Elsie is rewarded for her flawless fidelity.
What bothers me here is not that Elsie is perfect; I am not merely reacting out of jealousy to her faultlessness. What I do not like is its lesson—that God’s approval is only attained by perfection, by perfect and out-of-contextual obedience to His command, “Do not fear anything except the Lord Almighty.”
That we cannot cry out in fear for God to hear us or save us is for Him to demand that we cannot feel the very emotions He gave to us. And what does Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 have to save about this? “To everything there is a season, […] A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…” etc. I am sure that if Elsie really existed, and was in that carriage, He would not look down on her, roll His eyes and say with disappointment, “She’s disobeying Me again! Why can’t she just not feel?”
Again, this is far from all that bothers me about this series. There are some pedophilic undertones that are, quite frankly, disturbing. Vision Distortion also notices this as they write about the original 28-book series,
“There are a number of passages that describe Elsie’s father kissing his grown, about to be married daughter, ‘fully and passionately, deep kisses on her ruby lips.’”
People may argue that this was a more innocent era, where kissing on the lips was socially acceptable. It’s interesting to consider that also in Bible times, kissing was a normalcy between friends to represent equality between the two. Judas kissed Jesus, Jacob kissed his father Isaac, Paul instructs churches to “Greet one-another with a holy kiss, and Proverbs 24:26 even states, “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.” It’s incredible how important it is, when reading literature of any kind—the Bible included,—to understand its cultural context. Too often we interpret something perhaps acceptable in one culture to be incredibly wrong because we have subconsciously compared it to our own culture.
I have no doubt that in Elsie Dinsmore’s era, while kissing one’s father passionately on the lips is quite frankly disgusting to me, it was normal and not given a second thought when written or read back then. Here’s the problem with this, though. The targeted audience for these books is neither adults who understand cultural differences nor minds that have filters to decide between what is clearly right and clearly not. The targeted audience wasn’t even originally intended by the author to be children not living in or understanding this culture. Instead, and like myself, many little girls are simply handed these books by eager parents who have not read them, but have merely been told that they are “good Christian literature.” Martha Finley, in writing these novels, never points out “kissing your father on the lips is pedophilic and wrong,”—and I understand she felt no need to. Instead, what message is delivered to girls is that it’s okay, or, at the very least, not questionable.
But what really, really does bother me, and what Martha Finley has no excuse for, is the fact that Elsie’s father’s friend, Edward Travilla, 16 years her senior, is blatantly in love with Elsie from the age of 7, up until he marries her in her after she turns 21.
Vision Distortion writes about this in the following.
“There is a comment from Mr. Travilla, when Elsie is a child of 8, that he wishes she was ten years older and he were ten years younger.”
Karen Allen Campbell published an article on Breakpoint about this very same thing. She writes:
“…When [Elsie] is only eight, [Edward] flirts with her and tries to coax her to sit on his lap, kiss him on the mouth, and lavish him with affection.”
Vision Distortion concludes—
“When Elsie is grown and does marry Mr. Travilla, he states plainly that there has been no woman for him other than Elsie since she was a child of 7. What kind of man looks at a 7-year-old girl and has those sort of feelings for her? Not a man I want my children around or reading about.”
Mine either. With the message to young girls that marrying your father’s childhood friend—who’s been in love with you since you were a child—is perfectly alright, and probably ideal, considering the other two relationships Elsie tried to pursue and that Horace quickly annihilated (albeit one of them with a con-artist), again it becomes clear that fathers always know best. Don’t get me wrong, fathers have a lot of wisdom. I know because my dad has a plethora of sage advice to offer. But…is that always the case? Look at Elsie’s father. Does he always know best? Considering his less-than-stellar track-record, I’m really not so sure what point Martha Finley is trying to make.
The relationship Elsie gets into when she is 18 is with a man who calls himself Bromly Edgerton, who is actually trying to marry her, kill her and then claim her money, set up by Elsie’s cousin who is in a lot of debt and hands off her information to him. Elsie falls hopelessly in love with Bromly during a summer on vacation away from her father, and when Bromly asks for her hand in marriage once Elsie is about to return home, Elsie’s father checks into his background. Once he discovers what Bromly’s plans are, he instantly gets rid of him–much to Elsie’s despair–and saves the day. Elsie eventually thanks her father for saving her, but what we learn–through this story–is perhaps not the greatest message, especially considering that Elsie eventually is forced into the marriage with Edward by her father later on. The clear message here seems to be that men of whom your father might disapprove are probably only reprobate men who don’t care about you, and just want your money. Don’t get into ANY relationship without your father’s authority, because things will go terribly wrong and you’ll wish you’d listened to him. Father’s always know best.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes father’s do know best. Sometimes we young girls are mistaken. However, while sometimes fathers have deep insights into the truth–like in Elsie’s instance,–it’s also unhealthy to assume that only Elsie’s father knows how to handle reality, and that Elsie will always be helpless and at the mercy of the wicked without protection. It is not right to teach little girls that they will never be smart enough to take care of themselves or make their own decisions. Such a message is not empowering, but has the potential to fill little girls–much like myself–with despair.
Something that is bothersome to me is the constant childlike character Elsie is portrayed as. Even when she is about to get married, she’s still completely dependent on her father and husband to make her decisions. At one point her father tries to teach her how to handle her own estates so that she can be more independent, saying he has been happy to be a steward for her, but Elsie laughs and says that she has no interest in the business world and will instead rely on her husband to do this for her. Elsie just doesn’t want to take on the responsibility that was quite frankly necessary, even in those days–especially for a rich, powerful woman like herself.
Finally, we get the icing on the cake. When Elsie is grown and married to Edward Travilla, they own a plantation during the wake of the Civil War, and justify the fact that they own slaves by “being nice to them”, even going so far as teaching them about Jesus. But there are bizarre, offensive undertones of racism introduced here, because when Elsie teaches these slaves about the love of God, she assures them that they will be made white in Heaven.
I agree with Vision Distortion as it wrote—
“Yes, I understand these books were written by a Southern woman in the late 19th century. I understand the culture. But just because I understand the culture and the times doesn’t mean I would allow my young child to wallow in the ideology.”
Nor, I would argue, does it make it right to be very clearly racist.
This series is the epitome of what I do not believe, and—as an avid reader—is only the tip of the iceberg of what I will not want my children to read and revere as quality literature. Certainly it is much more understandable with given context and the ability to pick out what ideas and themes are right and wrong. But children don’t understand that they must do this when reading books full of cultural differences; or, if they do, it’s a lot of work to train their minds at an age where they are eagerly soaking up information to develop an opinion different from the author’s bias and intent.
And regardless, what good in the story is there left to value? The character-development is weak and far too clear. Good people are portrayed as righteous. Bad people are portrayed as wicked. There is a luscious, utopian impression about the series’ era that is unrealistic and untrue. I feel that in my upbringing I was constantly pointed by my authorities to try to become like a lady who would exist not in our culture but in a past one—very much like in an Elsie Dinsmore setting. I didn’t like this setting; it was too perfect. So perfect I felt like I would never measure up to its standards. And honestly, I’m glad I don’t. People like that just aren’t interesting.
Strip away the toxic patriarchy, the goals of perfection, the racism, the pedophilic undertones, the victimized heroine who constantly learns she can never save herself, and what is there left to scrounge up from the thoughtful pen of Miss Martha Finley? What GOOD messages can my children or anybody learn from this literature?
Here’s what I learned: there are better things to spend my money on. Better things to spend my time on. Better books worth reading.
But if you’re looking for books perfect for throwing away, here—you can take my stack of Elsie books. I don’t want them anymore.