This week’s throwback is to another of my favourite childhood books that remains a favourite to this day: Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott’s tale of a family of sisters, coping with their father’s war-induced absence, poverty and various issues related to simply growing up is an enduring classic beloved across the world.
The book describes the March family, in particular the four daughters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Each has a distinct character and role within the family and each has clearly definable virtues and flaws. Much of our view of the family and the world of Concord, Mass., comes from tomboyish, imaginative, irrepressible Jo, the second sister. Jo is a would-be actor and writer and often takes charge, bossing her sisters around, persuading them to take part in her various plays and scrapes.
The catalyst for much of the action in Little Women is the March sisters meeting next door neighbour Theodore Laurence ‘Laurie’, who becomes entangled in their lives from then on, pulling much of his household with him. Little Women has been adapted for the screen and stage many times, most famously with Winona Ryder as Jo, though my favourite is the 1949 June Allyson/Janet Leigh/Elizabeth Taylor film.
What people often think of as the plot of the book is actually Little Women merged with Good Wives, the second book about the March girls. Good Wives is followed by Little Men and Jo’s Boys –a quartet of heart-warming stories about one family that spans several decades. You wouldn’t necessarily think of Alcott’s books as a saga but that’s exactly what they are. We follow these sisters, the gaze gradually narrowing to focus mostly on Jo’s family, caught up in all that happens to them – both mundane and extraordinary – and we care about all of it, a mark of the affection which Alcott’s book inspires.
Little Women has a special place in my reading history. I was first introduced via the Winona Ryder adaptation when I was about 8 or 9. I was then given copies of the books by my Grandma, which had been hers as a child. I re-read all of them every spring or summer for years and years, immersing myself in the comforting, familiar world of the March family. There are up and downs, heartbreaks and great joy, adventures, mistakes, lessons learned and moments of pure luck – just about everything you could wish for in a novel. I’ve mentioned before my love of quiet, reflective books where, on the surface at least, not much happens, and I would argue that the Little Women quartet fits this description. I have vivid memories of lying in the garden, eating apples and reading about Jo’s exploits in Little Women.
Though the action is often gentle, the book is bold in other ways. Alcott wrote a novel about women, about their place in society and their place at home. Little Women discusses socio-economic status, doing the right thing over doing the easy thing, hard moral choices, poverty, artistic expression, self-identity and emotional freedom. All Alcott’s characters are well rounded; they each have their pettiness, their flaws and all make mistakes. But they are all capable of great kindnesses, love and humour – just as people are in life. Each sister is allowed to be distinct, to choose her own path in life and to discover who she is both within the family and independently. They are not foils for their male counterparts, they are not cast simply as ‘wives’ or ‘mothers’. For the time, Alcott’s portrayal of her leading ladies was ground-breaking.
Little Women serves as a lovely family saga, interesting coming of age tale and a treat to read, whether for the first or 50th time.