The last time I tried reading Little Women I couldn’t do it. I found that I had memorized so much of it that it no longer operated like a book in my mind. When I read, the scenes play as if they’re a movie. Memorization = no movie = bad reading experience.
But I loved that book so much in high school. I couldn’t even exactly say why, but just that it seemed so perfect. I wanted the little shabby house, four sisters to romp with, and a neighbor like Laurie to pet and tease and wheedle. I wanted a mother as supernaturally wise as Marmee is to just make most of the decisions for me.
Back then I identified mostly with Amy. She’ll do anything to be liked, has a heck of a temper while still being hilarious (especially in her misuse of the English language), and gets into the funniest scrapes. Like the time she tried to cast her foot in plaster and it hardened too soon. So she just had a bucket stuck on her foot until Jo could stop laughing long enough to cut her out again. There’s also the clothespin she uses to re-shape her nose (I never liked mine, either), and the weird dress up box she gets into at Aunt March’s. They hand over the sugar bowl to her whenever she gets cross. She cries over her math homework. I mean, Amy’s truly my patronus. Or was.
I decided to read Little Women again for a couple of reasons. The first was that people were saying a lot of things online about it, and I wanted to read it with a more careful and critical eye. The second was because I thought it would do for the 2016 reading challenge. The book doesn’t remind me of Christmas as much as it probably should (yeah, it starts at Christmas, but 90% of the book is another season). But it does remind me heavily of another season in my life. Besides, it’s probably been ten years since I’ve tried it.
I am here to report that it’s better than you remembered it. No, really. That’s a possible thing.
Or at least it was better than I remembered it. And I think this is why: It talks frankly about poverty, shows it in a cheery if sometimes inconvenient light, and doesn’t give false hope.
I couldn’t have put it into words before now, but I’m awfully mad at American society under general principals. It 100% isn’t true at all anymore that if you work hard enough you will be able to achieve the American Dream (if it ever was), and yet you are told a thousand times over that it’s the truth. I’m of a generation who is tens of thousands of dollars in debt, has come of age during the WORST financial crisis seen in 80 years, often works multiple jobs to make ends meet, and yet is still called lazy because they are treading water in financial insecurity. I’ve worked those multiple jobs myself. Hell, I’m currently working one job with what would be considered a middle class salary and I’m driving a jalopy and worrying about the grocery bill.
And I’ll be honest: my job is not what I thought it would be when I was 15. I don’t hate it, certainly, but it’s not one of those “never work a day in your life” jobs. It’s fine, I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing it well, and all the bills eventually get paid. But I feel like I at least deserve financial security if I am working that hard.
And then I crack open a page on the March girls. And there is catharsis.
I found myself much more a Meg this time around. She works as a governess for a couple of spoiled children and doesn’t like it, but it pays the bills. She has to continually watch the older son blow fortunes on vices, money that they throw away but that would make a sea-change worth of help to her poor family. She hangs out with Sallie Gardner and Annie Moffat who also have heaps more means that she does, and she must continually deny herself the trinkets and things they purchase without thinking. (See: my entire Chapman experience). She’s always fussing with her wardrobe to make it nice, has terrible yet hilarious domestic trails after she gets married (oh, the sticky, jam covered kitchen), and has a rough transition to living with John Brooke and making the marriage work. But in the end there is heaps of love and she is rewarded with a too-tiny yet cozy home they rule together, which Laurie dubs the Dovecote.
There is no “deserve” in this book. There are only choices and trials for all the girls. The reward for their work is a better character and a good relationship with the people they love. With some harmless, romping fun in between to break up the monotony, of course. There is no promise that hard work = security in anything but secure relationships. There is no expectation that any of the girls will find their “calling” and work at something they enjoy, or that work will ever be a pleasant thing. There is only pride in pitching in to help and in a job well done.
I realized that I’d do better to take some of those ideas and start trying to live them. So there I am again, in the same place I was 20 years ago: trying to use this book as a roadmap for life.
I guess some things never change.
Now excuse me while I go read Meg’s marriage scene again.