The Long Arm of Elsie Dinsmore

By Ashley

Growing up, I read a lot of books from the past, and most came from the same 'family:' children's fiction aimed towards girls, written sometime between 1860 and 1915 in North America.  I thought nothing of it.  I loved history, and adored the sentimental thrill that each of these books guaranteed, though of course I couldn't have named that at the time.  But I have vivid memories of shivering with delight at the best (read: most sentimental) bits.

One of these books was ´╗┐Elsie Dinsmore´╗┐.  Written in 1868 by Martha Finsley, it's about an eight year old girl who is a devout Christian living in trying circumstances with extended family who do not care for or about her, nor are they particularly 'religious' people.  And so, Elsie spends most of the book doing one of the following: weeping, reading/quoting Bible verses, visiting the poor and sick (mostly the slaves of her grandfather's plantation), and being treated unjustly (which leads to more weeping and reading/quoting Bible verses).

I adored these books as a child.  I even tried to imitate Elsie in real life.  Recently I tried rereading the first of these books for research, only to find the overt Christian tones so thick and overly sentimentalized that I could not make it past the first chapter.  I put it aside and added it to my mental shelf of crazy books that I will avoid mentioning in polite company.

Then I came home to Florida.  Within three days of working at the local state university, two educated, respectable women - one in her twenties, the other in her fifties - admitted to having read this book of their own free will as children, though each acknowledged how in hindsight Elsie seemed quite over-the-top.  

This may mean nothing to you other than the Bible belt is alive and well.  But I can't help but find it incredibly interesting that to this day, young girls are stumbling across these books in our grandmothers' attics and reading what critics dismiss as religious propaganda.  It makes me wonder what about them captures modern readers' imaginations; what is it that sends that thrill of delight when we're young only to make us groan as adults.  I have no answers, only a deep desire to never read the Elsie books again, accompanied by a sharp protectiveness over a childhood favourite.

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