My Childhood Readings: Elsie Dinsmore

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Lana Hope’s blog Wide Open Ground. It was originally published on March 13, 2013.

So conservative homeschoolers are sort of known for reading the Elsie Dinsmore books.

My family was no exception. We owned the first three books on cassette, all 20 something books in the series, the companion series about Elsie’s cousin, and the modern day rewrite of the books (which are much better written). Plus I have the Elsie and Mildred dolls. The books were written in the late 1800s, btw.

But I was an Elsie fanatic.

First, I should give a summary of Elsie. In short, the story is about a rich plantation girl born in the 1840s whose father comes home from Europe the first time when Elsie  is 8, and tries to force her to play the piano on the sabbath day. She refuses to break God’s law, saying she will obey any command but those that break God’s law. So she starves, and on the break of death, her father gives his life to Jesus. But still the struggles continue. Her father beats her brother until he fetches the newspaper as instructed. Elsie gets harsh punishment for reading Oliver Twist, and is never allowed to say, “I guess so.”

Elsie’s father also knows best for her marriage. Elsie falls in love with a fraud when away one summer. Her father intervenes, rescues her, and Elsie is quite upset until realizing her father was right. Her father is always right, no matter what, no matter Elsie’s age. (BTW, Elsie reminds me of the story in Courageous when the girl dates a boy who ends up in jail. Any time courtship is brought up, it always comes with the worse-case-scenerio stories.)

Elsie ends up marrying her father’s best friend (and boyhood friend), 16 years her senior; older men know best. Just before her husband dies at an early death, Elsie and her husband say they never had a fight. Elsie’s step mom, the only parent Elsie ever knew, also said she never had an argument with her husband, Elsie’s dad. Yet the book features her crying when her husband “spanks” the kids, but she never argues, ever.

Beyond that, the book is full of racism. They have slaves, and since they treat their slaves good, its justified. In one scene, they go to Elsie’s mother’s plantation and find the slave master beating a slave. They chastise him for this. During the Civil War, Elsie’s family bails out and spends the years in Europe. They come back to plantations destroyed in their area, but theirs are still standing, and so are their slaves.

And that, my friends, is the Elsie books, sold and pushed by Vision Forum. But I loved the books, and read them many times over.  And I never read fiction, basically ever, so that says a lot. I loved it because I identified with Elsie. She struggled to breathe in an authoritarian home, but unlike me, she handled it with ease and poise. I also identified with the Southern culture and all the Victorianism. Elsie always cried on her Bible, and I would cry on mine.

I wanted to be Elsie.

So I’m pretty much in agreement with those who say the Elsie Dinsmore books are full of sexism and racism. But Elsie made my childhood bearable and gave me a warm companion. I am glad to have “met” her.

Anyone else ever read Elsie? Watcha think?

13 comments

  • Howblueismyocean

    I was reminiscing about Elsie Dinsmore just this afternoon (wondering if I should throw my copies away actually….) so this article was timely for me! I remember being totally bummed out when she married the old dude….I mostly just didn’t think it was romantic enough, but I think my young mind recognized it as pretty creepy too.
    As for the racism, isn’t there a scene where Elsie “comforts” a young slave by telling him that in heaven he’ll be white?
    Pretty sure I won’t want my kids reading them, so maybe I should just toss them…

  • Oh man, I forgot about these. Yes, Elsie was the unattainable young woman raised in patriarchy, because she was delighted / content with her lot in life, while I was miserable. It would have been great to be her… so much easier… but I’m incredibly glad I was not able to fit into that mold no matter how hard I tried..

  • I read the first couple of books along with a friend. We only read them for laughs. We could both see how ridiculous Elsie was, and had a lot of fun reading outlandish passages out to each other.
    However, I did wish I could be organised, hard working and neat like Elsie.

  • There was a devastating academic article published a few years back (“Renewed but Not Redeemed: Revising Elsie Dinsmore” by Diana Sekeres, behind a paywall unfortunately) that observed that the revised editions removed the racially stereotyped “minstrel-show” language for the black characters, but left all the racist assumptions completely intact. So you got the really weird situation of people with modern politically correct language talking about how happy they were with their lot in life as plantation slaves.

  • My sons listen to the first book on cassette and got tired of ‘Papa, Papa, dear dear Papa’

  • I never had those books. It kinda sounds like identifying with the Lemony Snicket Baudelaire orphans, but with Elsie’s Dad instead of Count Olaf.

  • I never read this series, but I can relate when you say it was written in the 1800’s… my parents were obsessed with books from 1800’s.

  • elenajohnson13

    Oh, yes, I read the Elsie books. Elsie, herself, was a good book friend to me. However, I realize now that much of her outlook and most of her situation was unhealthy. Normal kids don’t act like she did. Her dad always drove me nuts. The racism is truly awful, and I remember a couple rather paranoid discussions of Catholicism and Mormonism. If I ever let my kids read them, it would have to be with a lot of discussion. They do shine a light on the thinking of the time period in which they were written.

  • Elsie… oh dear. My mom bought me the first book – where she fell off the piano bench. I read it, told my parents it was bunk and that Elsie was a complete idiot, and demoted it to the “kiddy bookshelf” in favor of Tolkien.

  • I bought the tapes for my daughter several years ago from Vision Forum. I was really disappointed that a man narrated the novels. I found it really creepy that he did Elsie’s voice in falsetto. Now, after all the controversy with VF, I find it absolutely sickening. I threatened to throw them, but they are a pleasant memory for my girls. So the tapes sit on a book shelf, hidden by books. Out of sight, out of mind. Puke.

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  • I feel the exact same way as the author about Elsie! Namely, that the books were atrocious in many ways, with the racism, the child abuse, etc. etc., but that I couldn’t help but love them as a kid because Elsie was, in my mind at the time, someone I could look up to. She indeed, like me, “struggled to breathe in an authoritarian household,” and the grace and poise with which she handled it were something I greatly admired. Plus, in comparison to some of the other books in our house, the Elsie books were actually well-written and drew me in to Elsie’s emotional little world. Plus I loved the descriptions of affluence.

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