Wednesday, August 15, 2012

So, is it racist?

So recently, I heard that both the Elsie Dinsmore series and the G.A. Henty series are racist. Frankly, I was quite surprised because I've read both books before and I've never noticed the racism. Since I had a G.A Henty I was trying to finish, I figured I should read both critically (paying particular attention to any racist overtones).

Elsie Dinsmore is a rich heiress who happens to be a devoted Christian. She also lives with her extended family, where they emotionally abuse/bully poor Elsie, who bears all things with a patient and meek spirit. Basically, she is as near to a Mary Sue as one can be, except that she cries so often she annoys everyone. Strangely, though, I found the book addictive.

As for the charge of racism, there is, in this first book, a comment by a black slave that Jesus loves her as though she is white. But on the other hand, we do have a white character treating her like a human being, saying
"How do you do, Aunt Chloe? I am very glad to know you, since Elsie tells me you are a servant of the same blessed Master whom I love and try to serve."
So, I'm quite willing to say that in the first book at least, there isn't much overt racism, and what there is, I can safely attribute to the mis-guided values of that time. At the very least, there are characters who (although they accept the concept of racism), treat the black slaves as human.

What disturbed me more was the strong patriachism in the book. To me, Elsie's father is much too overbearing, a fact that is commented on by the other characters. However, by presenting this as good, I'm uncomfortably reminded of the teachings of To Train Up A Child. But if I remember correctly, he does change in the later books. Still, quotes like this is uncomfortable:
"I love you all the better for never letting me have my own way, but always making me obey and keep to the rules."
Perhaps there's a more wholesome meaning, but in the light of the 21st century, I can't say it has a very positive message.

The main problem with Elsie is that it presents a role-model for girls, which means that it will probably appeal more to the pre-teen. However, due to some elements of racism and patriachy, I would only recommend it to older girls who have more discernment but may not want to read such saccharine books. I do wonder who would want to read the book (apart from the weird kids like me)

G.A Henty's stories, on the other hand, are aimed at boys and are super patriotic, to the point of offending those that aren't British. As a result, all his heroes are blond boys. Thankfully, this is believable in The Dragon and the Raven, unlike The Cat of Bubastes (really, a blond boy in Ancient Egypt?). Apart from being suspiciously similar to English boys, his characters also approach the Gary Sue character, being brave and heroic and .. and ... zzzz. I actually read it more for the descriptions of the period of the time than for the characters.

The Dragon and the Raven is set in the period of King Alfred, where the Saxons were fighting against the Danes (the Vikings). It's got a lot of fighting scense, which are long and to be honest, kind of boring, but is quite an interesting read nonetheless. However, early on in the book, our protagonist (not even a supporting character) speaks against equality.

There is always a romance in these books, and thankfully, the romance between Edmund (the protagonist) and his love interest is more believable because it wasn't added last minute. I actually knew it was coming, although I'd have liked it to be a bit more developed (well, at least he fought for her).
"Why father" Edmund exclaimed in astonisment, "surely you would not have all men free and equal."

"The idea seems strange to you, no doubt, Edmund, and it appears only natural that some men should be born to rule and others to labour.... their race is no doubt inferior to our own, Edmund."
But compared to the mis-understood theory of Christianity in the book, the racism is almost excusable. Although all characters claim to be Christians, they don't seem to have any real love of Christ or understanding of Christianity. There is no reference to the changing power of the Grace of Christ, but rather, the main impetus for conversions would be the "peacefulness" of Christianity. It's not the peace that surpasess understanding, but mainly the lack of war. I think this next quote sums up the author's understanding of Christianity, that it is for civilised people rather than being Truth that is for everyone:
"So long as men's lives are spent wholly in war they may worship gods like yours, but when once settled in peaceful pursuits they will assuredly recognise the beauty and holiness of the life of Christ."
Seriously, "beauty and holiness"? It should be something like "Christ died for all men, and we believe that when you experience the truth of this, you will come to love him as we do". But then again, none of the characters appears to have understood the heart of Christianity (but they definitely have the trappings of religion down pat).

For all her faults, at least Elsie does love Christ (although she verges on legalistic most of the time).

Before I forget, I won't be posting for the next 3 days because I'm going away for camp! (I have another camp shortly after that :D) So in the meantime, have fun, read books and join my giveaway!

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