As I was waiting for the eAudio version of Norse Mythology (by the one and only Neil Gaiman) to become available, I picked up Elsie Dinsmore. We only have the first 3 volumes (there are 28!) on audio and I have just finished the second volume. Luckily, Norse Mythology was made available as I completed volume 2. I say luckily because I really need a break from all the drama this series possesses. Drama? Oh yes indeed, which is an utter shock considering the seemingly mild topic of a young girl growing up on the coastal South during the Antebellum.
This series was the first donated audio version I accepted into the library. My co-worker said it was a very good, Christian series. Since we have a ton of Christian families who come I assumed it was a wonderful addition.
Fast forward 3 years: I need an audiobook and I see this series. I pick it up. I think, it will probably be good. It looked similar to a L.M. Montgomery book.
However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. After finishing the first two volumes and researching what happens to Elsie as she gets older, I have come to endure a love-hate relationship with this story.
Martha Finley began the series with the first volume being published in 1867. Britanncia on-line states in Finley’s biography about Elsie: “[It is a] tale of a preternaturally virtuous young girl valiantly resisting various relatively petty temptations in the name of a somewhat fundamentalist Christianity…” I could not give a better summary of the plot. I’ll add a few tidbits before I discuss my love-hate relationship with it.
Elsie has been living the past 8 or so years of her young life at her grandfather’s. Her father, Horace, fell in love with her mother, Elsie, at a very young age. They were around 18 years old. They elope and Elsie becomes pregnant with little Elsie-to-be. Elsie dies shortly after giving birth and Elsie’s mammy takes care of little Elsie while they are at a guardian’s home. Where is Horace, you may ask? Absent. He had left his little family. Eventually, Elsie and her mammy make it to Elsie’s grandfather’s home where she lives with him, her step-grandmother, and aunts and uncles more her own age than her father’s.
Nearly all her young aunts and uncles give her a hard time. Arthur teases her incessantly, Enna makes demands of her, and even her own step-grandmother and governess Miss Day are pleased to get Elsie in trouble. Elsie endures all of her “trials” because she has Jesus. She takes great comfort in the Bible.
One day, her father is to come. Unfortunately, her grandfather has sent him dour insights into little Elsie so he expects her to be a disgrace. The Dinsmores are a religious family, but not true believers in Christ. So the fact that his little girl is a real disciple of Christ makes Horace unimpressed and even a bit embarrassed.
Their first union does not go well. Elsie is timid and unsure of how to approach this stranger, yet because he is her papa she loves him all the same. He doesn’t give her a warm welcome. It takes many attempts and misunderstandings before father and daughter become close.
Until a quarter of the way through with volume 2, that is. Then something causes a great rift in their loving relationship: Horace demands Elsie read a secular book aloud to him on the Sabbath and she begs him not to make her. He banishes her from his presence and eventually leaves her alone at Roseland (where the Dinsmores live). He finally gives her an ultimatum: repent and submit or be sent to a convent. “Naturally,” Elsie gets hysterical about going to a convent (so any Catholics out there will be utterly offended over that section). It takes Elsie dying (yes dying!) for her father to repent and become a true follower of Christ. He repents for his mistreatment of her and for demanding that Elsie submit solely to his rule and not God’s. Elsie, of course, is brought back to life, suffering from a wee bit of amnesia only to gain back her memory and mend her relationship with her father.
- Elsie is not perfect. That may come as shock, but it’s quite true. She is completely misunderstood. She often wants to rebel against her father; probably not as much we would given the type of father and person Horace is, but it is still there. Elsie and I have a lot in common. I come/came off as a “goody-two-shoes.” My sisters (and I’m sure more) would make fun of me for not doing certain things. But I was just following my conscience, and Elsie does the same. So, I guess I’m sorry, but not really, if I come off as though I am “too good!” I’m not. And the same applies to Elsie. She sins.
- The other thing I love about the series is how accurate it is when it comes to salvation. Finley makes it very clear that working and being good is not enough. One has to accept and submit to Christ.
I feel like my dislike and discomfort with this book largely stems from a misunderstanding on what it was like to grow up in the Antebellum. I approach this book as a girl who grew up in the 1990s. However, I have read and adored many a book written in the mid-to-late 1800s and have not come across such disturbing content.
- Although the series is a bit heavy-handed when it comes to scripture, it is not nearly as bad as The Pilgrim Progress. I did not like that Finely ignores the scriptures in which Jesus and David broke the Sabbath and discredits the scriptures speaking of not honoring and obeying one’s parents. Since Horace was an unbeliever, she couldn’t bring out the scripture to apply to Horace’s treatment of his daughter (for instance, not to dishearten your child as in Ephesians 6). The Bible is a very balanced Book. What helps us know what to do is not merely right and wrong (as the scripture says to both obey God and your parents and to keep the Sabbath, yet Jesus broke the Sabbath), but by the sense of life and peace (Romans 8). Elsie obeyed God’s commandment but did it lead to giving her life and peace? No. She went hysterical…and dies.
- The misunderstanding of and not discussing the difference between love for a parent and for God. There is a distinct difference. I don’t know if Elsie just doesn’t realize it because Horace was so gone from her life for so long. He was almost like the “invisible” God who becomes “visible.” I think she gets confused. She clearly does not love her father above God or worships him the same. Besides, the fact remains that there are different types of love. Finley does the reader a disservice by not discussing the difference.
- Yes, Horace is saved! However, did his salvation have to come at the cost of such melodrama? I feel that this gives in to the belief of “dynamic” salvation being the only way or that something extreme must happen before someone will be open. Wrong. It would have been a sweeter salvation story that would echo with many more people if Horace received the Lord by simply being touched with the devotion of his daughter to God.
- Elsie is loved by a grown man. So, I didn’t really think anything about Mr. Travilla’s affection for Elsie. Until on a recent date night, we went to a used book store and they have other volumes of Elsie Dinsmore. I picked up volume 6 and saw that her name was Elsie Dinsmore Travilla. I thought, wait a moment…she didn’t marry Edward Travilla, the sweet friend of her father? BUT SHE DOES. So going back to read about how Edward would refer to Elsie when she was 8-10 years old, makes me cringe. Edward on one occasion says if only Elsie was a little older, he would take her. It makes Elsie blush. I’m thinking, dude how can you be in love with a 10 year old! Creepy.
Although Finley was a Northerner (Pennsylvania and Ohio), she decided to put Elsie down South with Negros for servants. As the first book was published after the Civil War, I was surprised there wasn’t more talk about free blacks, etc. Elsie’s grandfather even threatens one of his household servants to be put to work at the plantation. Then I learned that the series is set before the Civil War and in later books the Civil War takes place. It’s peculiar to me that she would pick the Antebellum South for a setting, especially since it was published after the Civil War. Was it so the series would do well in South as in the North? The world may never know.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this series. The love of it cannot overcome my hate, or to better say, my discomfort with it.
Did you read, and like, Elsie DInsmore? I welcome more other’s thoughts on the series.