Four Girls at Chautauqua

February 23, 2017

I love a good conversion narrative. I think it’s because there’s no other context in which authors go so deep into their characters’ thought processes. Four Girls at Chautauqua is, like, 70% thought processes, and I really, really enjoyed it.

Yes, I have finally read a book by Pansy. I picked one of her books at random last week, and realized a chapter or two in that it was definitely the sequel to something. But I was already intrigued enough to want to start the series from the beginning rather than looking for something standalone to read instead.

The first Chautauqua assembly was held in 1874, a kind of religious/educational summer camp for Sunday school teachers. This book deals with the second assembly, which took place the following year. I don’t know how much is real and how much is fictional, but the lecturers Isabella Alden mentions are real people, so I assume that they were at this assembly, and said the things she quotes them as saying.

Anyway, the assembly frames the conversion narratives of four girls who make the trip together. Eurie Mitchell is casual and fun-loving, and looks forward to Chautauqua as two weeks of social freedom and open air living. Marion Wilbur is an ambitious schoolteacher covering the assembly for a local paper. Ruth Erskine is the proud and languid type of fictional rich girl, and I’m not really sure why she chooses to go. Flossy Shipley is the fluffy type of fictional rich girl, and she wants to go because the others are going.

None of them are particularly committed Christians—Marion doesn’t consider herself to be a Christian at all—but you know from the beginning that they all will be by the time they return home. The pleasure is is watching them get there. Each girl has her own obstacles and her own path, and they’re all pretty consistent and sensible, once you get past the fact that religion is never particularly sensible or consistent. Flossy is drawn by Christianity immediately. Ruth and Eurie both believe nominally, but Ruth doesn’t realize that her belief is only nominal, and Eurie is unwilling to put in the work to be a practical Christian. Marian has a great deal of sympathy for sincere Christianity and very little trust that it exists. I found myself rooting for all of them to convert, and enjoying how seriously Alden takes their difficulties.

Four Girls at Chautauqua definitely isn’t for everyone. I don’t know whether I’m just used to separating out the moral dilemmas I find interesting from the religion I find silly, or if having been brought up an atheist Jew makes a difference, or what, but I get a kick out of this kind of thing, when the religious stuff feels organic to the story. If you don’t enjoy religious books, you probably won’t enjoy this one, because that’s all it is. But if you do, I really recommend it, because it’s a great example of the particular thing it is.



  1. I love this book, and the sequels (atheist here) – thanks for the review.

    • I’m close to the end of Ruth Erskine’s Crosses, and I see that the two remaining books in the series take place much later. Are they worthwhile?

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