It took me nine years to discover Little Women, though it had been sitting upon my shelf for years, waiting for me. When I was quite small and not yet a reader, my grandma, (who lived far from us, out in the Wild Wild West), shipped me a box of children’s classics to help “begin my library.”
I wonder if she ever imagined just how well it would work.
Although I knew nothing about her at the time, had never heard of her family, her father Bronson Alcott; of the term Transcendentalist, or the more famous members of their New England circle such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott saved and enriched my childhood beyond compare. I steeped myself in her stories. Drawn, oh so willingly, within her words.
If magic exists, surely this is it: by merely opening a book’s cover, by turning a page I breathed and walked 19th century New England. Was given sisters who were also staunch friends, a calm, nurturing mother, and a strong father I felt certain would return at war’s end.
How peaceful the March family’s world seemed! Filled with quiet, cozy times; with discussions of books, acts of generosity and simple kindnesses. Of so many fine things they, though poor, easily fashioned into their everyday lives. Their world held a beauty mine somehow lacked. There was no yelling in the March family’s world, not really. When anger arose it was rare and fleeting; and always remained upon the proper side of that line which should never be crossed. Real violence it seemed, was something existing only upon far away Civil War battlefields. Perhaps the knowledge that it existed there at all evoked horror enough; the homefront wasn’t the place for such things. Within the world of Little Women bones weren’t broken in anger, bruises and welts never raised. How far it seemed from the place I existed in, where windows were smashed, frightened children scrambled deep, deeper still, into their closets to hide and wait it out – quiet breathing behind the longest dresses and coats. Where mothers rage and fathers leave and you say and do whatever you must to simply survive. While awaiting rescue. Or escape.
This was my escape.
I was Jo March. Reading books by the dozen, chomping on apples, scribbling away, venturing out, diving headlong into life. A mop of thick hair shortened in sacrifice, I disdained fashion, walked heavily in boots, was strong, determined, scornful of social convention, and true to myself.
Naturally I could never be Meg, she was too terribly good and beautiful; and long before I turned nine, years before discovering Little Women I knew myself better than that. Nor could I be Amy with her golden curls, clothes-pinned nose, and artistic aspirations. My mousy brown hung lank, and was the bane of my mother’s existence – utterly without hope it was. My nose – unfortunately too much like my father’s side of the family – was best ignored; and artistic talent, it was universally agreed, I lacked entirely. As for Beth, well she was much, much too sweet and demure. She and I, I fear, had nothing whatsoever in common.
(I, you see, was a well known irritating child. And of course irritating children are never sweet or demure.)
Though at age ten I memorized the last two or three paragraphs of Beth’s final chapter, The Valley of Shadow. Reciting it to myself from time to time, making myself cry yet again, enjoying the admittedly morbid and entirely satisfying feelings of melancholy the words evoked.
There is nothing quite so refreshing as a good sob over a sad bit of a much beloved book, repeatedly read and privately recited to oneself.
Of course there was also Little Men.
Where I became Mother Bhaer. Jo March, all grown up. Happy, compassionate, intelligent, and warm; nurturing a houseful of children, (mostly boys). Indeed after marrying her professor and inheriting Aunt March’s lovely huge house she begins Plumfield, a school for boys. Accepting wayward lads such as Dan, (always my favorite of course), or the orphaned musician Nat. A bit delicate that one, no doubt saved by Plumfield from being lost altogether. Boys other schools refused – poor, sweet Billy, what the Scotch tenderly call an innocent. Looking back I’m overwhelmed by the foreshadowing these books held for my life.
(Was it foreshadowing? Did I shape it? Or was it destined, ordained, perhaps freely chosen long before. By me and yet not me.)
Plumfield had its share of cherished children as well. Demi and Daisy, Emile and Franz; and of course its infamous, official scamp, Tommy Bangs. Forever into scrapes and mishaps and hopelessly in love with opinionated, stout-hearted Nan.
(Sometimes I was Nan, but never Daisy. She was just too treacly sweet.)
These two books were my favorite of the many written by Louisa May Alcott.
Though Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom also hold a special place in my memory. Through them I fulfilled my longing for cousins who stayed; who weren’t whisked away by an ex-wife never to be heard from again.
How I longed to travel by ship to India, to the Spice Islands, to wear lovely frocks, live in a large house filled with interesting nooks and crannies, to own a box make of sandalwood. (I didn’t know just what sort of wood that could be – but fervently believed, as Louisa assured me, it was cunning and beautiful and smelled lovely.) To befriend a scullery maid named Phoebe, (which I had no idea how to pronounce; winding up calling her “Fob” with a long “o”, in my mind for many years.) With whom I’d share all my joys and woes, and who would grow up to marry one of my cousins and be my forever friend.
Of course none of this came to pass.
Well, yet at least… As all true readers know, optimism lies at our very core. That never fading belief that it all just may, this once, come true.)
Louisa May Alcott, (yes and others as well, though this is her paean,) helped salvage a childhood too quickly falling to bits. Snatching up handfuls of broken threads she deftly wove the rich tapestry, invisible to all but myself, which I draped before my closet door. A wary look in every direction and in I’d tumble. Down the rabbit hole, into the wardrobe, plunging along and through an earthen tunnel, struggling up and out into daylight. Making my escape.
A flashlight, a well thumbed, beloved novel, and perhaps an apple or two clutched in my hands.
Click the links below to learn more about these, and other, books by Louisa May Alcott.