Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Reading this book was very interesting. I don’t know what edition I happened to pick here, but the edition I read was a Barnes and Noble giveaway from years ago when I first got my Nook. As such, it had a nice, long intro into Louisa May Alcott’s live, the story, and some modern interpretations of the story. As to Ms. Alcott’s story, I was already familiar with it from an episode of The History Chicks – it was bonkers and she knew most of the literary geniuses of the time as family friends. The book also had tons of footnotes to explain slang and other terms that have fallen out of disuse.
What made it most interesting was the fact that parts 1 and 2 (originally published as two books) were such a different experience for me. I had nightly debates with my wife as to the reason part 1 did not gel with me. Was it because I was male? Because I’m near 40? Because life has so irrevocably changed between the 1800s and 2020? It’s probably a combination of all of those. And, if you think about it, for large chunks of the USA life was mostly unchanged for kids until maybe the 1960s. You mostly played outside and mostly entertained yourself. Even growing up in the 80s – video games were so hard you’d eventually stop playing and go do something else and for TV you only had Saturday morning and the 3-5pm block of The Disney Afternoon. And while my childhood wasn’t like this – I think most 80s movies and TV shows (or modern shows taking place in the 80s – like Stranger things) are right in that lots of 80s kids were latchkey kids. So you could read Little Women and understand what the kids were going through. But nowadays…I doubt kids will enjoy it. What can you see of yourself in the March girls? Not to mention, lots of the prospects for girls nowadays were closed to the Marches. It’s a big deal for Jo to write for the paper, nowadays there isn’t much off limits to females. Also that first part is santimonious AF. Very protestant work ethic.
The second part, however, I found a joy. It’s what saved this from being a 2-star book. As a married parent, I really enjoyed reading about John and Meg’s marriage woes and issues with the twins (I also have fraternal twins). Same with Teddy and Amy (spoilers for a > 100 year old book?). Interestingly enough, because humans are humans I found that MOST of the advice from the mom still applies to modern marriages. Only a little bit was retrograde, stemming from the inability for most women back then to work outside the home (or at least do much outside the home).
This book has been made into a movie a bunch of times. The end of the edition I read makes mention of 3 of them and there’s the one from the last year or so. As I read through the book, it didn’t really seem to have much of a plot per-se and seemed to mostly be very episodic. I think, given the modern trend towards prestige TV, this would probably make a rather nice TV show on Netflix or Amazon. It would give room for the characters to grow, to use both younger and older actors, and to build a genuine empathy for the characters rather than leaning on familiarity with the book as a crutch.
The introduction mentions there have been queer readings of Little Women, especially considering it was meant to end at part 1 with Jo declaring an intention to spinsterhood. At the time thie edition was made, that was in the form of examining Jo as lesbian and, since Jo is more or less a self-insert for Alcott, some exploration of potentially gay relationships Alcott had in real life. Reading this book in 2020, I thought of Jo less as a lesbian and more on the trans spectrum. After all, she doesn’t really make any mention of affection towards the ladies, but simply wishes to be a boy and do boy things. This carries over into part 2 in which she marries Professor B. The way it works within the book and from what we’re allowed to see into her head by the narrator, it reads less like Prof B being a beard and more like she likes boys (sexually) but is still a bit on the trans spectrum. THAT SAID, I had many discussions about this with my wife and struggled to nail down where the line is between being a tomboy and being trans. And maybe that’s because there is no hard line. Maybe it’s because I’m ignorant of trans issues. I don’t know or pretend to have answers, but I thought it was a very interesting conversation.
Anyway, this is a hard to recommend book – I almost hated the first part (hate is a strong word) and really enjoyed the second part. It’s potentially hard to relate to the characters and their goody-two-shoes life, but it contines to be a huge classic.
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