Saturday, December 4, 2010

Elsie Dinsmore

I have a Nook. I love my Nook, and recently I've discovered that I can download old books with expired copyrights--for free.

I love free, too.

So while searching for free books, I ran across the Elsie Dinsmore series. Way back in early high school, my grandmother bought several of the books for me to read, since they were highly recommended by high-powered Christian homeschool leaders(code for:Vision Forum and Doug Phillips. I am also very disappointed to see that Mantle Ministries and selling them, since I have usually found the materials from the latter two organizations to be of higher quality). I remember vaguely enjoying them then, but thinking that they were not particularly well written and, past the first two, didn't really have a plot. For the uninformed, they follow an exceedibly beautiful, incredibly rich, and overly pious young heiress in pre-Civil War south. I downloaded the books, since they were free and are being marketed as good books for young girls, with most of the marketing blurbs proclaiming Elsie as a role model.

The more I read, though, the more I was certain that Elsie Dinsmore Travilla would never, ever be a role model for my daughters, and, as far as I was concerned, my daughters would never make her acquaintance.


First, and most importantly, is the overt racism. Yes, I understand these books were written by a Southern women in the late 19th century. I understand the culture. But just because I understand the culture and the times does not mean I would allow my young child to wallow in the ideology. I understand the current culture and times, but there are many parts of it I have no desire to expose my young child too.
Among the more bizarre and disturbing examples, Elsie, in teaching her young slaves about Jesus, assures them that they will be white in Heaven. There is a strongly disturbing scene where Elsie comes across the overseer of her plantation, a man she employs, brutally whipping a slave. He explains that he has to use physical punishment in order to "make them work." Elsie's father cautions her against immediately firing the man, saying that the overseer is from the north and is accustomed to long days and hard work. He states that their slaves are naturally lazy, due to their skin color, and that he and Elsie must just explain to the overseer that he has to make allowances for the "natural laziness of the Negro." And so Elsie does, and there is no punishment for the brutal overseer.

Another issue is the seemingly incestuous overtones of Elsie's relationship with her father. The criticisms that it was a more innocent time and that displays of affection were often described in such seemingly sexual terms are, to me, not valid. 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." This, to me, is just plainly icky. There is also 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. Ugh. 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.
Elsie's father, it is plain, is only about 16 years older than she, and since he and Edward Travilla were childhood friends, it is likely that Mr. Travilla is only in his early 30s or so when he becomes engaged to Elsie in her late teens. The age difference isn't what strikes me as disturbing, but the numerous comments about how he has been in love with her since she was a little girl. Again, this is not a man I think my children need to read about.

A third issue I have with this series is that an 8-year-old child is pitted against her father. Elsie is very concerned about Sabbath-keeping and what books and songs and pleasurable activities are allowed and not allowed. Her father does not hold to the same scruples, and in the second book a scenario is set up where he requests Elsie to go against her moral beliefs and read to him a book she does not approve of on the Sabbath. This conflict takes up most of this book, and never once is it suggested that perhaps Elsie is not wise enough at 8 years old to make her own decisions like this, 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. My child may hold very strongly to the belief that eating all peas is bad, but he still may be required to finish dinner. 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--he may know that telling a lie is wrong, but I certainly do not expect or want my young child telling me what he is and is not going to do on the Sabbath. That is a grey area that needs to be left up to the parents to determine what is right for their family, and not left to a young child to determine for herself.

Do I understand the cultural context that these books are written in? Yes, I do. And again, just because I understand the cultural context of the Twilight series does not mean that I will allow my young daughter undiscriminated access to those books, either. We can understand the culture--a culture that was blatantly racist, a culture that described innocent affection in ways we now think of as sexual--that a piece of literature was written in, and yet choose to keep it from our children until they are old enough to also understand that someone can be as pious as Elsie, and yet still have many, many beliefs that are wrong. But that is not the age group to which these books are being marketed--the age range on the above-mentioned website is "great for the whole family," and they also market an Elsie Dinsmore doll. To me, this is marketing a series of books to children who are too young to understand the context and realize that just because Elsie seems to love Jesus and be pious does not mean that everything she says or does is correct. If I have a late teenage daughter who has the ability to think and read critically, and she wants to read these series, I would then allow it.

In short, simply because something has the label "Christian" on it does not mean it is worthwhile. If the Elsie Dinsmore series were less sensational and better written(I haven't even touched this, but there is no plot, and the characters are either good or bad, with no character study or rounding out), I might be more willing to let it slide. Instead, I see no value in placing in my daughter's hands a book that, as far as I'm concerned, has no redeeming qualities, either in the value of its writing or its character content. Too often, though, I've seen people see the label "Christian" and hear accolades from homeschool leaders, and never once evaluate the book or movie in question on its own merits. There is a lot of Christian junk out there, and just like secular junk, I plan to keep it away from my children until they are old enough and mature enough to sift through the bad and find the good.



  2. I actually found the Elsie books incredibly interesting and while I disliked some things about the book, as a young girl I enjoyed them tremendously and even now I see hardly anything wrong with them. Yes, it was a different culture back then and it wasn't wrong for girls to show affection to their fathers. Also, I thought Elsie and Mr. Travilla's relationship was a little strange but the book makes it clear that Mr. Travilla was several years younger than Mr. Dinsmore and the age difference wasn't that shocking in my opinion. Next, I wanted to clear up a few things. The overseer of Viamede was punished for his treatment of the slave and beatings were strictly forbidden on the plantation thereafter. Elsie's behavior toward her father in regards to keeping the Sabbath was not as rebellious as this article makes it seem. She simply refused to go against her conscience and you can't expect a true Christian to disobey their conscience as silly as that may seem.
    Lets not be so judgmental about these children's books written in the 1800's. They are so much better than most of the books our kids read these days and why shouldn't our young girls have good role models? These books caused me to grow in my faith and I learned that even when everyone else forsakes you, you can still count on God. He will never leave you or forsake you. I also learned about true beauty and not to just listen to what the culture tells us about beauty. Elsie dressed simply despite how her peers dressed or what she could afford and she wore her hair down in ringlets (honoring her father) instead of following all the latest trends. Elsie was a great role model and companion for me when I was young and I will let my daughters have the same experience.
    Btw, Vision Forum never hurt anyone either.
    God bless!

  3. I read one of these books b/c it was highly recommended in home-school circles and found it too boring and prissy to continue the series.

  4. I wholly agree with your assessment of the Elsie books and with the various points you raise. I myself read the series as a kid and even then, young and naive as I was, I noticed the incestuous overtones. And yes, "icky" was the word I used! Elsie's father was continually taking her on his knee, kissing and fondling his 8-year-old daughter in purple prose passages that read like a Harlequin romance. Their relationship came across as a sick Freudian attachment, inappropriate for young readers of ANY century. And to make it worse, Elsie's father also allowed her to be kissed and caressed by his best bud, Mr. Travilla, who in his own words DESIRED this 8-year-old child from the get-go. And let's not forget the all-pervading racism that is, arguably, even more offensive. I'll never forget how Elsie gave "spiritual instruction" to the children she owned as chattel, assuring them that "they wouldn't be Negroes in heaven." She saw nothing wrong with buying and selling human beings, but she would have DIED rather than sing a frivolous song on the Sabbath. Her priorities were sadly skewed and twisted. Don't look too closely at Elsie's theology because there are gaping holes in the logic and major inconsistencies. She reminds me of the Biblical Pharisees who, according to Jesus, "strained at a gnat but swallowed a camel." In short, these books may have some interest as social Americana, but for adult viewing only. IMO they are not acceptable for anyone under age 14.

  5. To the pure, all things are pure. You ladies have some interesting repressed leanings.

  6. The author was not southern. She was born in ohio.