Posts Tagged With: Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Little Women

9780147514011

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.

Categories: Book Reviews, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

For the Love of Novels

My earliest memory of reading was the Little Bear books, although those would hardly be considered novels. My mother would tuck herself into the bottom of the bunk bed with me and make me read to her. She took one side of the hard cover in her hand, and I took the other in my tiny one. I was always so conflicted inside. I wanted to know what happened to Little Bear next, but it was so hard to stumble through the words. If I was good and kept trying, my mother might read the last page of the chapter to me. Then, the book came alive in my mind like a film. After Little Bear came Drummer Hoff, who fired it off, which made me feel that it must be a beautiful thing to wear a tricorn hat and fire cannons at things. Later, it was the Secret Garden in all its haunting mystery, which my mother read to both my sister and I at bedtime.

I received Kirsten, an American Girl doll, the Christmas I was in 3rd grade. She came with a set of seven books about her life in 1850’s Minnesota. Once the Christmas tree was devoid of gifts, she and I climbed the brown trunk of the tree in my front yard and settled down into the y shaped crook that was my favorite. I read her all of her stories, partly out of conviction that her time in that maroon box may have made her forget herself.

By sixth grade, it was impossible to keep me in books any longer. I just read too fast. Elizabeth George Speare’s magical and frightening tales of puritan New England lasted me only a day. I sped through Natalie Babbit’s books, and wished that I could climb Kneenock Rise with the fat dog Alice, too. I fell in love with Anne of red hair and fiery temper and her need for puffed sleeves. Emily, haunted by family tradition in the beautiful New Moon, was next, and so was Valancy’s propensity to shock her miserly mother and the collections of Darks and Penhallows fighting over a jug in A Tangled Web.

In Junior High it was The Hobbit. I was half in love with Gandalf, of all people, despite his age and mostly for his fireworks. I was ready to pack my things and move to Rivendale post haste. I decided that I was going to read the classics – all of them – about this time. Wuthering Heights made me angry at the stupidity of everyone. Around the World in Eighty Days made me dream of balloons and elephants. Kipling secretly made me want to go overboard on an ocean liner. I breathed To Kill a Mocking Bird in eighth grade. Of all the soul shattering scenes in that book, the rabid dog stands out strongest now.

My Aunt Nancy sent us a package for Christmas when I was thirteen. She usually sent us a package, but this year we stripped the gilded paper from a beautiful, hardbound copy of Little Women. I think my mother had designs that we would all read it as a family together, like we did when my sister and I were little. I did not wait for that. I charged through the book and did not stop for months. When I finished savoring the last word on the last page, I would turn to the beginning again: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” That book held the universe, from the Pickwick Society to Laurie’s tragic past, to kittens and blancmange for sickness and the importance of gloves. It had croquet, lobster and jam disasters, champagne, parties to which you needed to wear a ball gown, France, and a knight who sneezed and his head fell off. I stylized myself a less-artistic Amy and memorized both the scene where she goes to the ball with Laurie in France, and the one where they are engaged after Beth’s death. My mother made me a present of Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Jack and Jill, An Old Fashioned Girl, and Eight Cousins next, and I worked my way through those as well, continually reading them as I did Little Women.

In high school, I discovered The Lord of the Rings. The Alcott obsession waned, and Tolkien burned instead. I wanted to be Arwen for a long time. I was more than head over heels for Aragorn by then. Then realized that Eowyn was more my style. No waiting at home for me, I wanted to dress like a man and take out the biggest baddie of them all, even if it did put me in a death sleep and meant I was stuck with Faramir. My family took a trip to Yosemite that year to stay in a white tent cabin. There is something so magical about reading Tolkien amid the trees. You could round any path to find the painted door of a hobbit hole in the hillside. Or so it feels.

Today, my passions have diversified. It was Garrison Keillor for a while, his sad tales of Lake Woebegone where desire lurks in the darkness and baseball games and typewriters stand in the light. I devoured Jane Austen, then Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl who could speak to the geese, and Enna who almost consumed herself with fire. Agatha Christie’s shocking morbidity kept me fascinated. Ursula K. LeGuin made me long for other, colder, planets. My current Diana Wynne Jones obsession, the way she entwines ancient mythos with anoraks, pies and laundry, has been interrupted by a Neil Gaiman fixation. This is the worst one yet. He is all over social media, which means that new things from him are never ending, and the fixation can continue unbroken.

How to pick a favorite from all the rest? It is impossible. Favorites change at the drop of a hat, at the changing of the seasons, with age and with experience. It is like picking a favorite child. Still, if I were to pick one it might be Little Women. Alcott was my first obsession. I find myself following the tenets in her books even today. For instance:

I have had a busy day at work sorting out customs paperwork. They did it all wrong while I was on vacation and now things are backed up for miles, in purgatory. My husband and I fought about faucets for the bathroom sink that morning. When you are feeling in a funk, do something nice for someone else and let the good feelings surround you, suggests Alcott. That night, I make dinner and set the table with candles and real, cloth napkins. It doesn’t help completely. That feeling of dissatisfaction still lingers underneath my heart, but it is less than it was before, and it does not grow. The argument has dissolved into the ether.

There is no denying that this book has seeped into the very framework of my ideology and stuck there like muscle on a backbone. I still wish to be those girls sometimes, collected around Beth’s piano for a song or ensconced in the garret with Jo’s inky fingers and askew cap, or having larks with Laurie. I can’t read Little Women anymore. I have memorized too much of it and the scenes no longer play in my head as if I was watching a film. Still, I remember the scenes vividly. I remember the tenets of their lives vividly. I remember the affection, family, tragedy, and even the petty betrayals, and I love them. While not necessarily my flashy, current favorite, the March sisters have certainly stuck with me the longest.

The constant, from Little Bear to Gaiman, is the devouring of new ideas, of the lives of others. Beethoven once wrote, “Oh it would be so lovely to live a thousand lives.” I have lived them in my mind and am all the richer for them. I am a teetotaling college student with a part time desk job. I have a husband, two cats, a mortgage. In my spare time I bake things and do homework. But when I pick up a book, lose myself in the ink on the pages, I am continually becoming.

Categories: Fiction, Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.