Elsie’s Motherhood

February 28, 2008

Elsie’s Motherhood is kind of weird because it’s sort of all about the Ku Klux Klan. Seriously.

The Civil War is over; Elsie has used her ridiculously large fortune to rebuild not only Ion, the Travilla plantation, but also the plantations of, like, all her friends and family. But only if they’re good Christians, I guess, so the Travillas’ near neighbors the Fosters are forced to sell their plantation to a northern family named Leland and move into a tiny shack. I would’ve thought the price of a plantation, even a post-Civil War cheap plantation, would be enough to pay for a new home that wasn’t, like, a hut, especially since the Lelands are Elsie’s sort of people and would likely have given more than the place was worth. But apparently not.

So everyone is recovering from the Civil War — this story is the most specifically dated of any of the books; the preface says it takes place around 1867 and 1868. The Lelands are carpetbaggers, or northerners who are moving in supposedly to take advantage of the south’s financial situation. The Travillas and the Horace Dinsmores — that’s Elsie’s father’s family: Mr. Dinsmore, his wife Rose, and their two children, predictably named Horace and Rosie — are scalawags, or southern Republicans. It’s a technical term.

It’s kind of confusing, but back then, Republicans were the less racist party. Lincoln was a Republican. Oh, also: Louise and Enna, Elsie’s two meanest aunts, who are both widowed and living with their father, are secretly making Ku Klux Klan outfits up in the attic. Old Mr. Dinsmore is a Democrat, and was very enthusiastic about the Confederacy, but he thinks the Ku Klux Klan are mean and dishonorable and kind of scary. Which they are. So we have the basic elements of conflict among whites in the south squeezed into a fairly small circle.

Also there is George Boyd, the nephew of Mrs. Carrington (whose son wasted away and died because he couldn’t marry Elsie), who has come to manage her plantation for her now that all her sons are dead. He’s a full-fledged member of the Klan, and one of the costumes Louise and Enna are making in the attic is his.

Finley makes it seem like the Klan’s conflict is solely with whites who don’t agree with them. They ride around threatening poor whites who they think might vote in ways they wouldn’t like, and periodically they attack the plantations of carpetbaggers and scalawags. The only blacks we see them attack are those who work for the Lelands and Travillas, and even then the attacks are just lead-ins to attacks on the main houses. The Klan is far more interested in harming Mr. Leland and Mr. Travilla than any blacks.

Meanwhile we’re getting to know Elsie’s children. The eldest is another Elsie, who is apparently pretty much identical to his mother. Than comes Eddie, then Violet, who tends to be the most interesting of the bunch, and then Harold and Herbert, who are inseparable, more because they’re close in age than because they’re both named after Elsie’s rejected suitors.

Elsie is perfect, and Harold and Herbie are too young to get into serious trouble, but Eddie and Violet each get to have an alarming adventure: Eddie is goaded into shooting a gun by his cousins Dick Percival (Enna’s son) and Wal Conly (Louise’s son), and ends up accidentally shooting his father. That’s what these books are like. Any kid who fires a gun when he’s been forbidden to will inevitably put a bullet through the person they care for most.

Eddie is forgiven, Mr. Travilla recovers, and Wal and Dick, after going on to terrify the Travilla children with the partially finished Klan outfits they’ve found in their grandfather’s attic, eventually repent and become nice guys after Elsie and Mr. Travilla give them ponies for their birthdays. It’s supposed to be an illustration of the efficacy of returning good for evil, I think.

Meanwhile, Violet is a sleepwalker, and one night she walks out onto the road and witnesses the murder of a stagecoach driver by a Klansman. She is rescued by her father after little Elsie wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers that her sister isn’t asleep beside her as usual.

This is also the book where we begin to see that the Dinsmore family is mostly redeemable. Old Mr. Dinsmore is finally won over by Elsie’s kindness, Dick and Walter turn out okay, and Wal’s older brothers seem to be pretty good guys too. Arthur is generally unobjectionable, and Calhoun, who I think is the eldest, almost joins the Klan, but Mr. Dinsmore and Mr. Travilla convert him to their point of view. Cal Conly is one of my favorite characters, I think, although it may just be because of his name.

The book finishes with Mr. Travilla not getting killed by George Boyd and the whole family traveling to Elsie’s plantation at Viamede, where Elsie has another baby, Lily.


  1. This is the first Elsie Dinsmore book I’ve ever read. I just finished the part where Eddie shoots his dad. In an odd way I found it comical. It’s the very worst thing that could happen with maybe the exception of shooting his mom. It’s like the author said, “Hmm, what’s the absolutely worst thing in the world that could happen to punish a boy who follows one minor malicious impulse?”

    Just at this early stage, also I’m sort of hoping something nasty befalls Elsie the mom. She’s kind and nice CONSTANTLY. Oh, I guess there’s one other facet of her personality—she can be SWEET, kind, and nice. I actually started re-reading Grace Harlowe’s 1st Year at Overton—Grace is definitely someone I cheer for much more than Elsie. Grace can be kind and nice, but also courageous and stubborn and occasionally nosey.

    I’m sort of hoping Elsie will get drunk and seduce one of the Klansmen, just to show she’s a little human, not purely a Stepford Wife. Unlikely, I suppose.

    But all in all this is kind of fun to read. It’s interesting too because of the post-civil war South, and I guess the author wrote it contemporaneously.

  2. All Elsie’s ‘wrongdoing’ is far in the past at this point. As a child she occasionally disobeys her father, and her unswerving devotion to her religion in the face of opposition can be interesting, but by the time she’s married, she’s become irredeemably perfect.

    I think she’s probably also more bearable in the later books if you’ve read the earlier ones, because, although she doesn’t have much in the way of personality, a history of suffering can sort of substitute for one.

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