Monday, February 18, 2008

Book: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Yay! Favorite book! I don't think I've read this in at least 10 years, maybe even 15 years. What fun to read it again. (and this cover is the right cover)

Okay, so, truth? The last 100 pages or so were sort of hard to get through. The story kind of drags and the moralizing gets a little heavy. But you have to finish because you have to find out what finally happens to Jo! Does she find true love? Get published? Become an old maid? It all happens sort of quickly at the end so you have to keep going.

I'm assuming (erroneously, I know) that most people know the basic story. Four girls (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy), their now-poor aristocratric Civil-War-Era family, and their wealthy and kind-hearted neighbors the Laurences, and their lives in 1800s Concord, Mass. I know! You're hooked already! In that case, you can read it online here.

My grandma gave me this book when I was around 8, I think. She had a knack for giving me gifts that I didn't think were very good when I opened them, but later came to appreciate. Like a diary, like a ream of plain paper, like Little Women. I don't remember when I first read the book (probably the following summer) but I do know that it took me a few tries to get all the way through. It's over 600 pages and I was only 8, for goodness sakes. It took at least three tries before I found out that Beth dies, and I don't know when I finally finished it and found out what happened with Jo and Mr. Bhaer. There's a big stretch starting at around page 500 where the going gets tough. One summer I finally buckled down and read the whole thing. When Matt and I were little, we would spend all summer sleeping on our back porch (either on the padded porch swing or on reclining lawn chairs, in our sleeping bags), and I distinctly remember reading all day (in the hot sun) and all night (with a flashlight) to get through it. I sobbed with Beth died (I couldn't believe it!) and I was so relieved with Jo and Mr. Bhaer finally found each other again. Totally worth it, and I think I immediately re-read the whole thing after I finished it the first time.

While reading, I had to look up stuff all the time (like who was Apollyon, and what was blancmange or a charabanc, and what book was Pilgrim's Progress?). See, that's why I think it's a pity that so many kid's books and shows are dumbed down these days. If you fill the books with interesting words and ideas, kids will ask to find out what these things are. I used the dictionary, asked my parents, or, when all else failed, used my imagination (not always accurate, but usually interesting). I mean, it took years of re-reading to finally get most of the references, but so what? I loved the process. Here I am, 33 years old, finally making blancmange.

So why do I love this book so much? I don't know exactly. It's sentimental, full of moral lessons (sometimes gentle, sometimes overt), a little romance, some tragedy, lots of innocent good times. Nothing crazy. But I was fascinated with it. I found it deeply comforting. I loved each of the girls, and Marmee (Mrs. March, the mother). I loved the details of their lives... what they ate, the plays they put on, what fun they had with Laurie (their next door neighbor). I thought a lot about each chapter. It made me think about things, it made me reflect. The moralizing affected me deeply -- I was surprised, this time around, at recognizing how much of my own (somewhat creaky) moral compass is still influenced by what I learned in this book. I also picked up on this reading how much it was a reflection of the times, as it was written in Concord, Massachusetts, by an author surrounded by Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists. I loved Emerson and transcendentalism when I studied them in high school... now I wonder how much this book had primed me for loving the whole Walden thing later. I also like learning (recently) that it's a semi-autobiographical book. I didn't know that when I first read the book, but now I appreciate it and love it even more for that. I'd love to go to Concord and see the Alcott house, which the March's hosue is based upon.

I don't know. I loved Jo's character, how she always had to fight her 'bosom enemy' -- a bad temper. I loved how selfish Amy was. The family -- rich in love, poor in finances -- inspired and reinforced my thoughts about how well one can live on little money, if you have imagination, creativity and a willing spirit. I thought a lot about how to be good (not that I always was... but I thought about it...). I loved how each of the girls had their crosses to bear, which slowly got easier over time, but it required a lot of work and perseverance and lesson-learning. (I told you there was a lot of moralizing). I loved the Pilgrim's Progress references and images (I've never read Pilgrim's Progress... I'm not sure I could make it through, but I kind of want to, now). I liked how Marmee let the girls learn their lessons and did not overly protect them. They had many failed experiments, but they learned, and got better, and kept on. I loved that. I got to see how bad decisions played out (never destructive, but often regrettable). And that you could pick up and keep going on.

The book is so gentle and so full of good lessons and funny episodes. The characters are rich, real, and feel like old friends to me. In the end, it's not so much that the book is so great (although it is), it's that it's my book. I know it inside and out. I learn something new each time I read it, and I used to read it once a year. It's part of me now. I don't know where my original copy is -- it might have gotten lost on the way back from Finland. I hope it's in the attic at my dad's house. I had to order a new copy on eBay just in case. It had to be exactly the right edition (if you love this book, the reviews are kind of fun to read), because you know how I need to have the right illustrations! The copy I just read did NOT have the correct illustrations and I had to keep blocking them out and reminding myself what the 'real' illustrations looked like. It was hard to read this edition that had the wrong illustrations! Ah, but I suffered through.

Anyway. Aside from that small irritation, I was happy to find out that it's still my favorite book and one I'll gladly re-read my whole life. I like the first half better than the second half, but it wouldn't be complete without the second half. I read an abridged version once and it was unbearable. You must have the full, unabridged version, both halves.

Now, as is my tendency, I want to read the next two books, Little Men and Jo's Boys. They aren't as good as Little Women, but it's fun to follow the characters. I think I've only read those books maybe once or twice. And should I read Pilgrim's Progress? Can you even find a copy of that anymore? Now that would be a great book review. I know you're dying to find out how Christian finally reaches the Celestial City. Heh.

PS: I just discovered this book coincidentally while searching for new books to read, and it's at the library! I requested it. I can't wait to start it. Also, Pilgrim's Progress has never been out of print. I find that amazing. I don't know if I can read it. I might have to take a look at it, though.

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