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Reviews by Jean Helms

Elsie Dinsmore

by Martha Finley

"Elsie Dinsmore" is just the beginning of a series of books about Elsie, and it sets the pattern for all those to come. It's not an attractive pattern, either.

Elsie, in this book, is a very young girl whose mother is dead and whose absent father has come over time to despise his all-but-orphaned daughter. Elsie lives with her grandfather; the other children in the home are her aunts and uncles.

Elsie's extreme, priggish Christian piety, the casual racism that surrounds her (at one point, her devoted slave mammy, Aunt Chloe, comments that Jesus loves her just the same as if she was white) and the straw men that the author sets up as Elsie's tormentors, make this book simultaneously treacly and offensive, although I don't doubt that the racism of the time is accurately portrayed.

The climax of the book comes when Elsie's father, having returned to his home, attempts to force Elsie to play on the piano a song that she considers improper for the Sabbath.

Her father orders her to remain seated on the piano bench until she is ready to accede to his wishes, but poor, devout little Elsie remains so long that she faints and falls from the bench, hitting her head and, we are told, nearly losing her life.

Here's an excerpt:

"Elsie, do you know that you were very near being killed last night?"

"No, papa, was I?" she asked with an awe-struck countenance.

"Yes, the doctor says if that wound had been made half an inch nearer your eye--I should have been childless."

Elsie's strongest reaction is to tell her father that she was quite ready to go to Heaven.

Melodrama, indeed.

The best reason to read "Elsie Dinsmore" is that it makes reading the works of Louisa May Alcott all the more pleasant. Think of Jo March's struggles with her temper and compare them to Elsie's whimpering about how she failed to bear unearned punishments quietly. Elsie is presented as the ideal child; Jo's charm is her utter humanity, her flawed but lovable -- and instantly recognizable -- personality.

For an equally interesting comparison, try Alcott's "Eight Cousins" and "Rose in Bloom" in contrast to the Elsie series.

Alcott was a moving force in an entirely new form of children's literature, and one for which all book lovers should be eternally grateful.

Leave Elsie to the ages.

Reviewed on 2005.04.07

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