By September 24, 2010 2 Comments Read More →

Me and Louisa May Alcott

little-womenIs a blog post by a man in his 40s about Little Women a bit weird, perhaps even a little creepy? Well, maybe so, but I’m reading about Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy, and I’ve got to confess, I like them, I like ’em a lot.

This all got started a few months ago, when like most guys, my experience with Little Women was confined to grudging, long-ago encounters with a couple of the film versions. I could remember that one of the girls died and made women cry (OK, it made me cry too), but I couldn’t tell you which one. But some friends were staging My Jo, a musical about the little women, and told me there was a part for which I should consider auditioning. They are good friends, so I put my doubts aside and went to the audition, where my wife was cast as Marmee and I became Professor Bhaer. I didn’t remember Bhaer from the movies, but the stage directions described him as bookish (check), kind (check), and “wide in the wrong places” (check, damn it). My junior high school German class finally proved useful for the accent, and hey, I get to sing a ballad and pitch woo at a gifted young actress who has the kindness not to laugh, scream, retch, or crumble to dust when I kiss her in the last act. The fact that I do this in front of my wife/mother-in-law is both appalling and delightful. I could not tell you which of us–myself, my wife, Jo, or the audience–finds this the most embarassing, but so far I have not been stoned.

Being the dedicated thespian that I am, I felt the need to do a little research, so it was time to finally read Little Women. At first, I found it a little too moralistic, which in Alcott’s defense, was what the publisher wanted her to be.  But then something delightful happens on the page: Louisa May keeps going with the story, with her story, and a book meant as inspiration for children becomes something more. These young women are not perfect, and despite the moralizing, they have character flaws that they struggle, and sometimes fail, to conquer. Jo is a delight for her era, a rebel in a time when being a rebel was truly difficult, not a come-on in an advertisement. 

I’m always struck when I read children’s literature from great authors of earlier times because it doesn’t pander. Alcott’s characters are complex and her language is lyrical and uses interesting, unusual words. Her plot isn’t simple and light either, the darkness of the Civil War looms in the background, the most likely romantic for ending for Jo is spurned (Bhaer: Bite me Laurie! Bite me Christian Bale!), and yes, Beth dies (don’t whine to me about spoilers, you knew she died, and if you read it, it will make you cry whether you know in advance or not.)louisa-may-alcott

Little Women deserves its huge and ongoing popularity. If you try it in your book group, by all means pair it with a good biography of Alcott. You might for instance try Harriet Reisen’s 2009 work, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. Little Women  is her life story, after all, and it becomes even better, even more powerful and tragic, when you know the story behind the story. As one might suspect, Bronson Alcott was a difficult man, full of big moral ideas but negligent toward his immediate family. In real life, being a rebel didn’t make Louisa beloved by all, and the family’s real poverty fell largely on her shoulders. With the help and inspiration of some fascinating acquaintances (Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and others in the transcendentalist circle) she rose from the ashes, but her success didn’t make her happy, and the effort wore her out and led to the early breakdown of her health. It’s a melancholy story, but one that truly captures an era, especially the life of women in that era.

As for my good Professor Bhaer, he was a figment as well, another consolation to the demands of publishers and fans. It wasn’t in Louisa’s real nature to accept a proposal in the rain, even from another lovable oddball. I’ll just play out the fantasy of my historical crush on a true groundbreaker, enjoy my theatrical brush with a fascinating woman.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "Me and Louisa May Alcott"

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  1. kaitestover@kclibrary.org' Kaite Stover says:

    I want a ticket to your show. 🙂

    And Little Women/Good Wives remains one of my all-time favorite books. Alcott’s sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys are not as strong, certainly more plot driven, a little less moralizing.

    I always preferred the second half, Good Wives, to the first part. More interesting character development and challenges for them in the storylines.

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