I grew up on Little Women, just not in the traditional manner.
Have I spent much time addressing my mother in the role of my reading life yet on this blog? Even if I have, I feel that now is an appropriate time to do so. Her name is Tamme, and she is integral to who I am as a person.* I can’t remember a time my mother didn’t supply me with reading material. She still has gobs of my childhood books on the shelves in her home (I’m going to guess no less than 300?), and that doesn’t even include the ones we’ve sold at garage sales and the like, or the special ones she toted up and sent with me when I started my own home. My mom started working at the county library when I was around 8-9, and it was a dream. I had the lobby couches to lay on during my days accompanying her. I learned the Dewey Decimal System and helped shelve returned books. I also got in the very bad habit of never actually checking out books because she worked there and could easily return them for me– I had to remedy this in my adult life. One of the best parts of my mom working at the library was that she got a discount on the books she bought through the library’s providers. So…I got more books. As a child, I distinctly remember her directing me away from my book and the couch with the warning that I needed to take an hour break and do something physical: play outside, jump on the trampoline, take a walk in the fields neighboring our home. I did not appreciate it, though I do understand the reasoning now. She also knew that books were the only thing I really cared about, so if I got grounded or had something taken away as a consequence to misbehavior, it was reading time that I lost.
We also spent a great deal of my childhood following my brother around on his athletic endeavors (mainly traveling basketball or baseball tournaments). We spent one particular weekend in Hannibal, Missouri, and my parents decided it would be a treat for me to go to a local bookstore. I didn’t know anything about the books Louise May Alcott wrote, but my mom picked out three for me (and they were $3 each, I distinctly remember that): Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. They were the Dover Evergreen Edition, and the paperback covers were flimsy; my mom took them to the library and put a plastic library cover on all of them so they would stand up to the passage of time and any wear.
This is not the only exposure to the book I was given. I devoured the Portraits of Little Women series from Susan Beth Pfeffer; I actually think I read all of them except ____ Makes a Friend editions). My favorites were Christmas Dreams, Birthday Wishes, and Ghostly Tales. If you have a young daughter, I cannot recommend these highly enough. I really liked them. In fact, my copy of Birthday Wishes got stolen one day at school and I challenged my teacher to check the bag of another student because I knew she had it. My teacher did not, and she proceeded to cover my perfect copy IN STICKERS. People say these injustices will fade with time, but I have my doubts. Clearly. Another book I read that made me think frequently of the story would be The Mother Daughter Book Club (which I read last year). The book club selection in this middle-grade story is Little Women. It’s a sweet little book.
My mother is not a reader (even though she gave me every opportunity to become one); she just doesn’t care for it. She does, however, love television. Particularly, she loves old movies, mysteries, and true crime dramas. Also sometimes musicals. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of my favorite movies now include The Wizard of Oz, State Fair, and Grease. I digress. One of the movies we loved to watch together was the 1949 version of Little Women with Elizabeth Taylor. My mom kind of loves Elizabeth Taylor; her signature scent was Diamonds and Emeralds for much of my fundamental years. Anyway, we watched this movie all the time– and we were in agreement that this version was far superior to the new, 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst. No offense to either of those actresses, that’s just the mentality with which I was raised in relation to the films.
Fast-forward twenty years. I decided it was time that I reread Little Women. A new film adaptation was headed to theaters (directed by Greta Gerwig and with a star-studded cast), and it just seemed to be an appropriate time. I could not have foreseen the journey on which I was about to embark.
Little Women: A Literary Encounter
It took very few chapters for me to fall completely and totally in love with the March family. I was pleasantly surprised by the candid way Alcott described her heroines; they are not entirely obedient and wholesome (with the exception of Beth, who is, of course, perfect), but they struggle with pride and vanity and anger. They are, at alternating times, discontented and selfish. They hold grudges, and act impulsively. Of course, this is a bit of a moral story at heart, and they overcome these wrongdoings by the end (for the most part).
I never had a sister, and as a child this was my greatest sadness. My brother and I were very close, best friends, but I thought this bond could only have been paralleled by that with a sister to go through all of life with me. Alas, it was not to be. Still, I am always enchanted by stories of sisterhood. This charmed me beyond belief, and yet it still felt pleasantly familiar to read of these sibling relationships (regardless of the fact that I lacked a female sibling). I loved also that the girls each clearly had their own identities and personalities. Jo could not be further from Meg or Beth or Amy, and that makes her distinctly unique as a main heroine. She is impetuous and ahead of her time; a true, inadvertent warrior for the equality of women. She is both creative and determined.
When I reached the chapter describing the Pickwick Papers, I realized I had never read this book before. Imagine: a 26-year-old bookworm who had never read Little Women! Insanity. So of course, I felt immense shame and plodded on.
I also think I was unaware that this book was actually written in two distinctive parts. I admired that, because it both helped move along the plot and also allowed the girls to be presented as mature young women. It was during this second part of the novel that I realized Amy doesn’t actually suck. I assumed (from the movies I had seen) that she was just the worst; that may be true in the first half, but also, SHE IS A PRETEEN. Have you ever worked with 12-13 year-old girls? They are the epitome of sass and attitude. Frankly, I found Amy to be kind of delightful. I also felt sincere anger that I had spent so much of my life disliking her. Misleading films.
This paragraph will be my time for confession. It took me LITERALLY 25 days to read this book. I know that some people read at a slower pace, but that is an eternity for me. If a book takes me more than 10 days to read, there’s usually something going on. The something going on was the fact that I waited until December to read this; we had something to attend every weekend of the month! Also, this was the month my kid really started getting mobile. He’s walking now, but he was bravely attempting last month, and so we spent an inordinate amount of time saving him from certain death. Also, I got sick. Also, this is a classic– it’s just an accepted fact that these will take longer to read than something written in the current vernacular (though I don’t think this is written in a particularly difficult manner). Excuses, but still. It took me a ridiculous amount of time to read this.
I was bitter that it took me this long to read, and so I gave it four stars originally upon completing the novel. Of course, I went back several weeks later and gave it the full five stars it deserved, but I had to get over the shot this experience took at my personal reading pride before I could do that.
This is the perfect coming-of-age story for girls and women. It might also be great for the male sex to read, but I think this is more well-suited to a female audience. It just perfectly captures the experience and emotions of growing into womanhood, as well as accurately depicting the camaraderie experienced between women. It has heartbreak and love, marriage and loss. And, personally, I don’t feel like the love stories within the novel take away from the autonomy exhibited by the heroines. It’s really, really good. No shocker.
I should probably also note that I used this annotated edition as an accompanying piece, and it is BEAUTIFUL. I cannot exaggerate that enough. If you are someone who wants to really dig in to the novel, this would be perfect. Or if you are someone who already loves the book and wants to intensify your adoration.
I’m embarrassed that it took me 26 years to read this book, but here we are. I can only be thankful that I finally picked it up! Here’s to praying that it doesn’t take me 26 years to read the rest of them. I think it’s time for me to return to Eight Cousins and A Rose in Bloom, also, because I know with certainty that I at least started those two.
Little Women: A Cinematic Experience
Thankfully, I was able to finish the novel before my mother and grandmother and I went to see the newest release in theaters. We also worked time into our ridiculous schedules to watch the two other versions that I grew up on (the 1949 and 1994 adaptations).
I was flummoxed and aggressively disappointed. Let me tell you why.
My entire life, up to this point, I had been led to believe that the 1949 version was superior to all other adaptations in every way. Guess what: it’s the least-canon of any of the adaptations I’ve seen, and that ticks me off. Let me list the reasons:
- It leaves out SO MANY SCENES from the book that I loved: Amy and the limes, Jo taking Beth to the sea to recover, Amy’s entire European adventure, Meg’s two-week stay with the Moffats (as well as their ball), the Pickwick Papers
- The relationship between Mr. Laurence and the March women is incredibly overlooked and understated
- It doesn’t utilize the beauty of the grand outdoors as this most recent version of the film does
- Jo isn’t right. It’s not that June Allyson a bad actress, but I just think she’s all wrong in her portrayal of Jo.
- Much of the relationship between Meg and John is ignored; there are some really great moments between them in the novel
- Both Jo and Laurie look much, much too old for their respective roles
There are more reasons, and if I decided to take notes upon watching again, I’m certain I would have more complaints. Let’s talk about what the 1994 version does right:
- Amy and the limes
- Laurie is PERFECT
- They cast two separate actresses for Amy; I think this is really perfect and necessary because she is essentially two different people in the two sections of the novel. It allows us to picture her as a child (as she is in the beginning of the book) and a grown woman. Also makes it less creepy for Laurie to love her.
- Includes many more of the essential scenes (but still basically ignores John)
- So many fantastically famous people in the cast list (shouldn’t matter, but it does)
But then, I watched the 2019 adaptation. And everything changed.
You guys, it is PERFECT. I loved it so much. Amy was finally depicted accurately and it was wonderful. The entire staging and filming was simultaneously bright and heavy (when called for). I loved that it alternated settings; I think that makes a lot of sense when you’re dealing with a novel that spans over ten years from beginning to end. The legend Meryl Streep plays Aunt March (it’s fabulous), Emma Watson plays Meg, and Saoirse Ronan is absolute perfection as Jo. I will say that I think Amy looked way too old in the beginning, but her childish brattitude was on-point, and Timothee Chalamet was way too young to match the picture of Laurie I have in my head (although his portrayal of the role was spectacular).
You know what I maybe loved the most? The ending. Yes, it’s a bit radical, and it does change the ending (which I can’t normally condone). That being said, I think it really honored the author. I don’t want to spoil anything, just know I really liked it.
So there you have it! You didn’t ask, but now you can read all about my comprehensive understanding, knowledge of, and exposure to Little Women (in all its forms).
Until next time, happy reading!
*I’m currently reading March by Geraldine Brooks, and in it they explain away the name of “Marmee” by saying it is actually a nickname that everyone uses, even before her marriage and motherhood. Makes me feel a bit better about the fact that I like to call my mom Tamme from time to time.