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Initially, Elsie does not live with her parents but with her paternal grandfather, his second wife (Elsie's stepgrandmother), and their six children: Adelaide, Lora, Louise, Arthur, Walter, and Enna. Elsie's mother died soon after giving birth to her leaving her in the care of her grandfather. Before her father comes back she becomes good friends with Rose Allison, with whom she studies the Bible. Her father was in Europe until she was almost eight years old as the first book begins.
The first Elsie books deal with a constant moral conflict between Christian principles and familial loyalty. Elsie's father is a strict disciplinarian who dictates inflexible rules by which his daughter must live. Any infraction is severely and often unjustly punished. In her father's absence Elsie has become a Christian and abides by Biblical law, especially the Ten Commandments. Her father regards this as ludicrous and in some cases as insolence. Elsie feels she must obey the Word of God before that of her father and can only obey her father when his orders do not conflict with Scripture. For example, her young uncle Arthur ruins her copybook and does other damage which he blames on Elsie. Because Elsie will not tell on him, her father is ready to punish her, until she is saved by last-minute testimony from another relative. He attempts to force her to break the Fourth Commandment several times, finally resulting in her having a complete nervous breakdown. In the original story of the second book, Elsie died, but this was rewritten as a near-death experience. Her father later marries Rose Allison and has two more children, Horace, Jr. and Rose, also called Rosie.

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