How Horrible are the Elsie Dinsmore Books?

They need to be taken out of print immediately.

The behavior of these adults is not portrayed as villainish, and that’s a huge problem. This stuff is normalized, not presented as a tragic backstory or obstacle to overcome. Children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Cinderella to A Series of Unfortunate Events, but especially Victorian literature, are filled with mean, neglectful, and frequently dangerous adults behaving badly. So is the real world. Jane Eyre’s family were hard on her and her stubborn, strong will, but we as readers were always rooting for that little kid who tried to hold on to her worth. We never thought that spirit inside was something she needed to learn to let go of. And we never take the side of adults who are mistreating the protagonist!

This book blurs the lines and tricks us into doing exactly that by making Elsie’s views unsympathetic to modern readers. This child gets into a royal battle of wills with her father over her refusal to play the piano when requested on Sundays. And read a book to her sick father. And go for a walk. As punishment, she is forced to stay seated on the piano bench for hours, skip meals or socializing, etc. A protracted standoff ensues, lasting for days (possibly longer, if memory serves), as there is a collective attempt to break Elsie’s will. Absolute obedience is required, and her wishes and moral objections will not be taken into consideration. Her father doesn’t need these things from her. He wants them. And he is determined to fight a battle to the death rather than drop the issue. How mature is that?

Elsie’s dad is over-the-top cold to her, choosing to not relate to her with embraces or any sign of warmth at all upon his return after having been out of the country for most of her childhood. He inexplicably, cruelly, responds to the other children of the family with affection and warmth, but not to his own. Elsie is made to feel that she is on some kind of probation where she needs to earn his love by proving herself at every little thing she does and being on the best behavior possible.

Elsie herself is not a particularly likable character – she’s a sanctimonious goody-two shoes who supposedly was born with a strong will and rooted it out of herself through spirituality. She also has a bizarre religious belief in “not telling tales” even if, as it turns out, the situation requires it. An abuser’s paradise. That’s right, she scrupulously considers herself honor-bound to let not a word escape her lips of another’s wrongdoing, even into her teen years when her dangerous, bullying, thieving, drug-addicted cousin begins threatening her for money! In addition to being a terrible role model who seems to almost intentionally maneuver herself into martyr-type situations for their own sake, Elsie is not the kind of character that children can consistently sympathize with, and therefore we find ourselves playing devil’s advocate for the horrible adults in her home.

Perhaps strict Sabbatarianism would have struck a spiritual nerve of Christian devotion and religious persecution with the original readership, but I suspect it jangles as a bizarre, artificial, made-up legalism to any modern readers who identify as Christian. Activities that used to be viewed as secular and wrong to engage in on Sundays are not forbidden to any current believer I ever met, and I was in church ever single Sunday of the year. Young people reading these books are not going to understand where Elsie is coming from, at all. Elsie also wants to convert her father to Christianity, which adds another complicated and problematic dynamic to the ongoing power struggle.

It is not the job of the child in any situation to de-escalate, but the adult’s. I learned this lesson in no uncertain terms when I started working with children as a teacher! Kids push you to your limit surprisingly quickly, and you’re still responsible for the direction that you choose to take the situation, every single time. Oh, and obviously, no child anywhere, ever, should once be made to feel they have to earn love. This has gone beyond the old-timey cautionary tales meant to scare children into obedience (little Timmy wandered off and fell in a well, maybe children should listen, hm?) into one of those Reddit “Am I the A**Hole?” threads where the vote returns as ESH: Everyone Sucks Here. This is just an extremely uncomfortable abusive situation, and we as readers are clearly being given the option of victim blaming a young girl.

Stories work because we’re supposed to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the protagonist, even if their actions are far from “right”. But the author has set up a situation where our sympathy hinges on whether or not Elsie’s stand is morally justifiable. If it is, she is truly a persecuted religious victim, an explicitly Christianized version of the suffering white-dress Victorian heroine. But if Elsie’s position is indefensible from a Biblical point of view, she has no other leg to stand on, because that was the premise of the whole thing. There is no other reason for her to be doing what she was doing, and now she looks to be nothing more than the obstinate, willful, troublemaking child her relatives are accusing her of being – arbitrary and putting her own opinions and desires above the well-being of others.

Worst of all, wrapping up the story with a reconciliation between the two, a happy ending held up as a promise that the one who hurt you could be the one to heal you if you just keep trying to earn favor, is the definition of a trauma bond. People like these, unfortunately, are not people you should be pushing closer to in hopes of doing your part to establish peace and goodwill.

This is not love.

Love does not do these things.

It is not loving to torment, withold food from, and publicly shame/humiliate a child. Over and over, in front of the rest of the family. That’s exactly what happens in these books.

The Elsie Dinsmore books are born out of and explicitly perpetuate a toxic, damaging, tyrannical version of Christianity that believes that the presence of a human will at all is wicked and sinful, and the goal of not only God but parents and even husbands (Oh yes, I’ll get to that bit at the end) is to drive it out of you. Obedience is prized above all, even at the expense of love, as we see here in these books. A person who has actually been psychologically broken is an appalling sight. Have you ever seen it? A strong, vibrant soul, broken and crushed and manhandled into a spiraling mess of self-loathing, shame, and blind, eager codependence?

I have. It was awful. If I never see another person I love trapped in spiritualized self-hate it will be far too soon.

The Elsie Dinsmore books send the message that bad treatment from others is for your good, and that you should have a fundamentally negative view of your heart, emotions, will, desires, etc. Both messages will destroy you if you let them in, even a little bit. Stand your ground. Some pride in the sense of having dignity, self-respect, and self-worth, is necessary for survival. It’s not wicked or sinful. It’s that sacred place inside ourselves Maya Angelou talked about.

Chadwick Boseman talked once in an interview about how everyone needs to see themselves as the hero of their own story. Authoritarian spiritual environments and teachings reject this idea in favor of seeing your self/will/spirit, as inherently problematic obstacles in the way of the story. Others may attempt to remove them for you – this is for your benefit. It is a gracious blessing on your quest to root out sin, and of course God would agree. But this is horrifying. A person has to have a healthy, well-adjusted relationship with themselves or they don’t stand a snowball’s chance of navigating the ups, downs, successes, failures, and relationships of life.

At the very moment Elsie enters into the fight of her life, a battle of wills for nothing less than her own autonomy, self-determination with regards to conviction and conscience, a struggle for freedom of basic actions and choices, the uprising not of a toddler or teenage spirit but the holy human spirit itself, , the right to behave as her own person instead of a trained object, to exist on her own terms – the reader’s support wavers. It should never be stronger. She becomes less likable, less relatable, when she should never be more so. The author has made her cause a bit ridiculous, and it undermines the struggle considerably. And the struggle itself is anything but ridiculous. We feel confused about how we feel towards Elsie in her greatest hour of need, when our hearts should be going out to her. No young person should feel this way about themselves in their greatest hour of need.

Take a look at some of the other (much briefer!) online reviews below. I found these after I had already composed this article and was just re-arranging the paragraphs in the final round of editing. I just wanted to confirm that they were, in fact, still in print, but when I looked them up, I saw this host of confirming voices using phrases like “creepy”, “emotionally abuse”, “bully”, “milksop”, “doormat”, “caricatures”, “most stressful reading experience of my life”, and “horrifying”.

Oh, and I’ve buried the lead – a controlling marriage between a 21 year old man and a 15 year old girl! That sickening, heartbreaking storyline, comes along much later in one of the later books in the series. This child is orphaned and a family friend steps in and marries her to make sure she is provided for. This would have been legal and above-board at the time (and in many U.S. states until rather recently). It’s not implied at all that they’re actually sleeping together, if I remember correctly, but he takes the role of a guardian and tells her what she can and cannot do. The incident that stood out to me was when he comes over to her as she plays with the younger kids and tells her to come down out of the tree. He scolds her for being unladylike and says she can’t do that now that she’s married.

Holy crap. It’s so messed up. It’s a soul-crushing storyline. She ends up writing a note and running away one night, because she feels so unhappy and feels like it’s all her own fault. Because this is a moralistic Victorian tale, her dress gets caught on the door and she stays there trapped in the dark, thinking about how she could be at the mercy of any man who comes by, until she faints away (told you this was Victorian!). But oh, what a lucky, happy ending! Her husband comes home and finds her and they agree to not say anything about it. She is relieved and properly ashamed of her silly, wild ways, and promises to be a good wife for him from then on. It’s a cautionary tale to instill fear in girls who don’t feel inclined toward the prospect of submitting to a man’s authority in marriage – see, you could die or worse without him. You’re lucky. You’ve been a stupid child. If you’re very, very lucky, you will be forgiven and we’ll forget all about this. And then you can submit your whole heart and soul to this person who…who parents you.

This is not love.

Love does not do these things.

Loving husbands do NOT teach their teenage wives that they’re not kids anymore and it’s time to act like a grownup now.

I hope and suspect that most of the readers of the first Elsie Dinsmore book who are responsible for those five star reviews on Goodreads never read the subsequent books in the series. Like, seriously, I do not think the vast majority of people make their way all the way through all those books. (Most of them are less compelling than the first book but they do carry judgy overtones throughout, as their basic purpose is still moralistic.) So it is at least a relief to know that most impressionable young girls reading what they thought was a good Christian lesson-teaching book never had to encounter that tragedy.

But I did.

I was about 12 or 13. I read these books on my own, put them back on the shelf, and endeavored to forget what I had just read without processing it at all – by myself or with another person – because the messages were just a tad too close to what conservative evangelicalism had been pumping into me my whole life. To challenge these dynamics would have been to challenge the very foundation of what I knew of family life and morality. I knew that the books were vaguely, generally messed up and kind of looking-down-over-one’s-nose, but didn’t have the mental vocabulary of ideas and categories to call any of it out by name. It felt like when, at that same age, you knew an adult that gave you the creeps, but never told anyone because you couldn’t explain it and didn’t want to have it dismissed.

Martha Finley wrote these books in the late 1800s during the prudish, self-denying, holier-than-thou morality of the Victorian era. I remember they were being recommended among moms in the homeschool community, and I was surprised that my little sister’s friend was reading them.

She was in elementary school. I didn’t like that idea. They didn’t seem thematically appropriate, and yet they are actually intended for this age range!

There are plenty of rave review of them online, so these messages have clearly found a ready audience. Whatever damage has already been done to those who read those books long ago as children is done. It is everyone’s responsibility as adults to think critically now about how relationships work and identify any bad messages they received when they were younger. Grownups can fend for themselves, but when I think about any of the eager faces that looked up at me in 3rd and 4th grade Sunday School class in Tennessee or English class in China, I would go up against anyone, any teaching, any institution, any belief system if it came to defending their well-being.

What bothers me is not that grown women won’t change their minds on this issue but that even one girl that I ever knew, ever babysat, ever taught, ever waved at, ever chatted with, ever exchanged names with, might one day pick up these books and absorb even one thing written in them. It’s the next generation I’m worried about, not those who have gone before. This generation is bright, powerful, perceptive, ambitious, and compassionate. Their light is too bright to be tamed by this tangled mess of unhealthy dynamics.

The Elsie Dinsmore books need to be taken out of print immediately so these ideas don’t get any more airtime in front of young minds. If you have the time, please read the articles below, written by a blogger named Libby Anne in 2017 following the Roy Moore scandal. In them she explores the child marriage dynamic in much more depth. (Multiple examples, unfortunately, are found in the series.)

According to Wikipedia, “A new Elsie Dinsmore series of eight books was adapted and abridged from the old one and published by Zondervan/Mission City Press in 1999, dubbed “Elsie Dinsmore: A Life of Faith“.”

So if you want to contact the publishing company, start there.

Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: