First thoughts on March

I decided upon reading March that I would read with an open mind. Fan fiction is a risky business (although calling March “fan fiction” doesn’t feel quite right, it’s a decidedly more serious work). The reader comes in with all kinds of pre-conceived notions and expectations, and the author can quickly fall out of favor if those expectations are not met.

Having read reviews on Amazon, I knew I’d have to keep an open mind.

Taking no prisoners

March is a powerful read; Geraldine Brooks doesn’t pull any punches. Based on the mostly absent character of Mr. March from Little Women, Brooks fleshes out the character, describing his experiences as a chaplain in the Civil War and how it changed him.

Little Women presents such a sanitized version of Mr. March that the reader has no sense of what he’s been through or what makes him tick. He’s a two-dimensional mystery and Brooks seeks to remedy that.

Jumping right in

Right from the start, she dives into the heart of the matter – the consequences of the Civil War (and any war) on the individual soldiers.

War ain’t pretty!

from ohiohistorycentral.org

Chapter 1 is full of very graphic descriptions of injuries and death. Being a rather sensitive soul, I find the need to read over these sections quickly. A leaden feeling in the stomach means memories that will haunt me in the middle of the night. I have a hard enough time sleeping! :-) War, however, is far from pretty and a realistic dose is a good thing.

Mr. March and Bronson Alcott

Chapter 2 gets into one of the major hot buttons of the Civil War – slavery and its abolition. Brooks jumps back in time to a 19 year-old March, working as a peddler in the South. This is where background reading on Bronson Alcott really helps. It so enriched the chapter for me being able to draw the parallels between Alcott and March.

The destructive force of slavery

March meets a slave named Grace whom he finds compelling and attractive – this plays out in a later chapter. He also discovers his vocation as a teacher when he is asked to teach a very bright slave girl how to read.

March and Roots

He then comes face to face with the ugliness of slavery and what it does to both black and white. Corrupting the white slave owner from within, the black slave suffers the consequences. I don’t want to give away too many details but suffice it to say I had a sudden urge to check out the episode of Roots where Kizzy is sold off because she helped a fellow slave to escape by forging a traveling pass. Sandy Duncan’s performance as the plantation owner’s niece, Missy Anne, had always impressed me. Here was the perfect example of how slavery corrupted someone from within. Kizzy felt brutal betrayal from her lifelong friend Missy Anne because Missy Anne failed to “protect her”; Missy Anne felt betrayed as well because Kizzy was “stupid” enough to help a fellow slave escape. Very haunting, just like this chapter.

What was Geraldine Brooks thinking?

It was in Chapter 4, however, where I began to figure out Brooks’ intention for this story. Here March meets Marmee; Brooks writes:

“After the service, her brother presented Miss Margaret Marie Day, whom everyone in the family called by the affectionate childhood name of Marmee.”

Her intention

Most provocative! A charming idea, but surely a stretch. Everyone who has cherished Little Women knows that the name of Marmee came from Lousia’s own use of the name for her own mother. Perhaps Brooks means for the name to be used for both as it does sound like a nickname for “mother.” Still, she took a big risk here of alienating readers.

This leads me to believe that Brooks means to be provocative. She wants to poke, prod and shake up the reader so that in no way the reader can remain lukewarm. A strong negative reaction is better than no reaction at all!

I have to admire that kind of courage in a writer; it makes me happy to suspend my expectations and go with the flow of this book.

Death and dying

I plan on using a separate post to explore Chapter 3. Brooks’ view of death is quite different from Louisa May Alcott’s view as shown in Little Women and Hospital Sketches. In the video I posted the other day featuring John Matteson, he read a chapter from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , where Louisa goes off to war. He cites many of the passages from Hospital Sketches that I had planned on re-reading after reading Chapter 3 of March. How timely that that video came along when Chapter 3 was so fresh in my mind. J

Have you read March? Were you able to suspend your expectations? What did you think?

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Hear and see John Matteson discuss Eden’s Outcasts

Here is a video of John Matteson discussing his Pultizer prize-winning biography, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. It appears to have been done at the School of Philosophy at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Update

Watching the video while working – Matteson is charming! He says he was told that writing his first book would be a miserable experience. He said it was totally the opposite. It certainly shows in the book! p.s. He’s funny too. :-)

Spoiler!

Matteson maintains that Louisa failed to include her father (essentially) in Little Women because she was saving the best material for a book she had planned to write about Bronson that unfortunately never was written. Interesting!

One more update

I haven’t finished this book yet. I’m taking my time because it is so beautiful. Matteson is reading now from Louisa’s time as a nurse, just after John Suhre died, and how she came to write her beautiful tribute to Henry David Thoreau, the poem, “Thoreau’s Flute.” I have read 8 biographies of Louisa and Matteson is the only one who reflects my thoughts about how Louisa deals with and writes about death. I stopped work and kept saying “Yes! Yes!” as he read that section. I can hardly wait to get to that part of the book.

I’ve said it before – Matteson brings a distinctly spiritual element to this book. This is why I was able to come around a bit regarding Bronson – because Matteson understood Bronson’s spirituality and wrote so eloquently about it.

And …

Matteson’s story of how he turned from being a lawyer to a professor and author inspired me. He does it for love of his vocation which again, shines through his work. His classes must be wonderful.


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Reading Little Women as a writer

Recently I was asked by my writing tutor analyze the beginning pages of books I’ve read to see how the author set up the story. I  immediately thought of  Little Women’s first chapter as it is so iconic. Louisa did a masterful job of introducing the four sisters and giving the reader a sense of who they were in a very brief bit of dialogue. A specific and important characteristic of each sister was introduced; in fact in a sense, these were the identifying characteristics.

Let’s take a look:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug,

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contently from her corner.

What do we see about the sisters?

  • The fact that Jo is grumbling hints that she is ornery; this is a trait that comes up again and again in the story, climaxing as all-out violent anger in Chapter 8, “Jo Meets Apollyon.”
  • Meg is complaining about being poor, showing how much she loves and wants pretty material things. Throughout the book she has to battle with this tendency, especially in Chapter 9, “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.”
  • Amy’s complaint shows  that she feels entitled to nice things just like other girls (in her world, everything ought to be “fair”). The “injured sniff” is a hint as to how spoiled she is. This absolute need for fairness gets her into trouble and when she is denied, she can act out of vengeance, doubling the trouble, again shown in Chapter 8.
  • Beth shows she wants for nothing because she has her family which is most important to her.

Dialog sets the stage

Louisa continues to carefully and succinctly lay out who the characters are and what makes them tick, much of it through dialog. The setting of the story is also set out that way:

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

This sets the stage. As Little Women was written shortly after the Civil War, readers of the day would know which war Jo was referring to. It sets up that Father is away, making this is an all-female home. It also shows the love for Father.

The heart of the story

The moral nature of the story is first revealed here:

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices and ought to do it gladly. But I’m afraid I don’t” and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

This shows a sample of the desire to be virtuous and how difficult that can be for each character, a key element of the story.

Sisters, sisters

from Bette's Movie Blog

The dialog continues to tell us about the sisters including how each spent their day and how they related to each other. This piece of dialog is such a perfect example of the dynamic between the sisters:

“Jo does use such slang words!” observed Amy, with a reproving look at the long figure stretched on the rug.

Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle.

“Don’t Jo. It’s so boyish!”

“That’s why I do it.”

“I detest rude, unladylike girls!”

“I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!”

“Birds in their little nests agree,” sang Beth, the peacemaker, with such a funny face that both sharp voices soften to a laugh, and the “pecking” ended for that time

The sniping back and forth between Amy the younger and Jo the elder is so typical of how sisters relate. Hopefully every household has a Beth as peacemaker!

Reading through a new lens

I realize that some of you are writers and that this analysis is pretty elementary. As a beginning writer learning the craft, I find this “reading between the lines” to be great fun.

I have always maintained that Louisa had a methodical way of setting the stage for whatever was to come. These few lines tell us so much that I find it frankly disruptive when she inserts herself into the story to describe the physical features of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. It’s one part of her writing I don’t like (and I will never forgive her for the way she inserted herself so cynically into the end of An Old-Fashioned Girl).

Reading Little Women a second time through the lens of a newbie writer is proving to be great fun. Having it on the Nook and being to highlight and make notes to my heart’s content is fabulous too!

It sounds like I need to “get a life.” Sorry, I already have one. :-)

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“I Always Wanted to Be Like Jo.”

Spring in Concord has sprung, not only with budding trees and flowers, but with a plethora of activities celebrating the centennial of one of the oldest home museums in the country, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Little Women discussion panel

On Thursday, March 22 I had the joy of attending the first of three presentations on Little Women, held at the First Parish Church in the center of town. This presentation featured a discussion called “Why I Wanted to Be Jo March.” moderated by a panel of noted Concord residents plus the executive director of Orchard House, Jan Turnquist.

Panelists for the discussion included Concord residents and the executive director of Orchard House. From L to R, Kathy Reticker, Melissa Saalfield, Jan Turnquist, Jiffy Read and Maura Clark.

Click here to  find out more about the panelists and their connection to Little Women.

A room full of fans

While communicating with all of you through this blog is a great pleasure, it was wonderful to be with people in person discussing our passion for Louisa. Most of the audience were senior citizens and they were a well-read group! Although I haven’t read as much as they had, still, I felt right at home.

Jo’s influence

During the evening we discussed Jo March’s significance in the lives of women. Many of the women had read Little Women before the advent of women’s liberation and found Jo’s voice to be unique and strong.

Little Women has been translated into over fifty languages and has impacted women around the world. Jan Turnquist mentioned how many female political leaders from around the world have been influenced by Jo.

One woman’s story

Jan also shared an anecdote of a Korean woman who, after landing at Logan Airport, drove straight to Orchard House because she “had to see it.” Jo March had empowered her life. She had felt like nothing in her society where all the emphasis was on the men. Yet partly due to the reading of  Little Women, she grew up to be a professor. As an adult, she went through difficulties with her husband and felt deep shame. She turned back to Little Women for solace and was empowered again, this time by Marmee.

Universal appeal

The panel discussed the universal appeal of Little Women and why, after over 150 years, the book is still so popular. Jan touched on the morality of the story as appealing to the core values in each of us.  In an age where such core values are constantly being questioned, Little Women acts as a port in the storm, reminding us and comforting us.

Flawed, human characters

Jo, as an example, was a deeply moral girl who was flawed. She was ornery, impatient and outspoken to the point of being rude. She had a violent temper that got her into trouble as evidenced by Chapter 8, “Jo Meets Apollyon.” The authenticity of her humanity rang true with readers as opposed to the “perfect” children depicted in other stories of the time. Jan mentioned an actual book called Goody Two-Shoes as an example.

Sisterhood

The nature of sisterhood and the unique bond of sisters was also suggested as a reason for Little Women‘s enduring popularity. Several of us shared stories of our relationships with our sisters and how Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy mirrored those relationships.

Fitting in

Another reason for the appeal of Jo March is the fact that she didn’t fit in with women of her time; she felt “odd,” “queer.” Yet there was a vigorous spark in Jo that empowered her, enabling her to strike out on her own, writing books and choosing to marry for love.

This point resonated with the women in the room, and with me as well. I have often felt “odd” (and having a daughter who is very mainstream, reinforces that feeling daily! :-)). Yet that “oddness” is also a source of pride and often empowers me to make my mark in the world.

Family ties

The strength of family was also mentioned as a reason for Little Women‘s appeal. Much is made of Louisa’s dedication to her family and her role as chief caretaker and breadwinner. She displayed mixed feelings in her journal writings of this vocation, chaffing to be free yet compelled to take care of them.

Give and take

A mood pillow sold at Orchard House.

Jan reminded us, however, that it was not a one-way street. She pointed out that Louisa’s family was always there for her and knew exactly how to take care of her when she needed them most. Whether it was nursing her back to health after her stint as a Civil War nurse, or respecting her moods and needs to be alone to write (as evidenced by Louisa’s use of the “mood pillow”), Louisa received as much as she gave.

Learning to appreciate the power of Little Women

I walked into that discussion eager to fellowship with Louisa enthusiasts and walked away with a much deeper understanding of why Little Women is such an important book.

A world full of Jo Marches

Having read Little Women as an adult back in 2010, I couldn’t truly appreciate the significance of the book nor its heroine, Jo March. I had chiefly immersed myself in Louisa’s life which blunted Jo’s power for me. And today, the world is full of Jo Marches, thanks to great strides in women’s rights. Jo has perhaps, lost some of that uniqueness.

Most of the women in this group, however, met Jo March before women’s liberation took off in the 1960s. There were few role models for women as unique and empowering as Jo and listening to their stories helped me understand better Jo’s influence.

Is Jo losing her significance?

It made me wonder if Jo will continue to be such a powerful influence. Perhaps in America, she won’t be. But Little Women is still read around the world and judging by the reaction of that Korean woman, there are still many women who will benefit from Jo’s example.

Perhaps not …

It made me think how Little Women could even be considered subversive in cultures where women are still so oppressed. Here again is another example of Louisa May Alcott’s genius in mixing provocative ideas into a sugary mix. No one would ever suspect the power that lies in this simple moral story of four sisters growing up in 19th century New England.

More presentations

If you’re in the area and interested in attending the other two presentations in the series, visit the Events page on this blog for more information.

Has Jo influenced your life? How?


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Reading Little Women and March simultaneously

For the longest time I have avoided reading March by Geraldine Brooks. I just wasn’t interested in Mr. March and had had my fill of Bronson Alcott. March, however, is enjoying tremendous popularity right now due to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

I subscribe to different key words on Google to keep with with all things Louisa and March came up again and again … and again! I felt like I was being sent a message – “Read this book!” and so I decided to dive in.

It seems like a great book to read alongside Little Women.

So far I am finding the writing to be powerful. I am also very glad I did the background reading (and writing) on Bronson Alcott because already I recognize much of what I read about his history in Mr. March. (If you want to see what I’ve written on Bronson, click here for a list of posts).

Although all of the articles I’ve read online have raved about March, there were several very critical reviews on Amazon.

I just plan to go with the flow on this one. I do love reading about the Civil War and have a wonderful Civil War Atlas that I will read along with these two books.

It should make for some rich discussion. :-)


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Eight Cousins: “Tomboys make strong women”

Chapter 14 in Eight Cousins, “A Happy Birthday” lays out Uncle Alec’s strategy for Rose’s upbringing: she is to run, jump, climb trees and play with her cousins, and she is to ride horses, all in an attempt to strengthen her physical and emotional health. Mrs. Jessie compares the Rose she sees now with the Rose of before:

” ‘ … when I contrast that bright, blooming face with the pale, listless one that made my heart ache a while ago, I can believe in almost any miracle,’ as Rose look round to point out a lovely view, with cheeks like the ruddy apples in the orchard nearby, eyes clear as the autumn sky overhead, and vigour in every line of her girlish figure.’ “

A wistful memory

Eight Cousins was published in 1875, years after Louisa had returned home from the Civil War, deathly ill with typhoid. She never did regain the good health she enjoyed as a girl when she could outrun any boy she meet or beat them at hoop rolling. I imagine her writing with great wistfulness (and a touch of irony) the following words about Rose:

” ‘She has broken out in the most unexpected way, and frisks like a colt; for she says she feels so full of spirits she must run and shout whether it is proper or not,’ added Mrs. Jessie, who had been a pretty hoyden years ago herself.”

from Bette’s Movie Blog

About being a tomboy

Although Abba and Bronson believed in fresh air and play for their girls, still, Louisa was reminded often of her tomboyish ways by her parents and sisters. In Little Women, Louisa echoes this in the exchange between Jo and Amy:

“Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle.

‘Don’t, Jo. It’s so boyish!’

‘That’s why I do it.’

‘I detest rude, unladylike girls!’

“I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!’ “

Remaining true to herself

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Louisa was reminded often, especially as a teenager, that it was time to put away being a tomboy and act like a lady. For Louisa to “put away being a tomboy” was like denying her very self. Suppressing the enormous energy of her true self in the physical realm (except for morning runs, even in her later years when her health was a problem) was difficult; instead she redirected it to merge with her creative force, producing a seemingly endless flow of writing. Undoubtedly that physical force fueled her marathon periods of writing, also known as her “vortex.”

Outlet for affirmation

While Louisa didn’t enjoy full acceptance from her family, she was able to affirm her own sense of self in her writing in this passage as demonstrated by Alec’s plans for Rose:

” ‘Let the girl run and shout as much as she will it is a sure sign of health, and as natural to a happy child as frisking is to any young animal full of life. Tomboys make strong women usually, and I had far rather find Rose playing football with Mac than puttering over bead-work like that affected midget, Ariadne Blish.’ “

It must have felt good to write that line.

And there’s no doubt that all that tomboy energy made tomboy Louy a very strong woman indeed.

Regarding cats

As a postscript, I must comment on the passages about Kitty Comet. As an avowed cat lover (my kids would call me a cat lady!), I love the descriptions of Kitty Comet, a kitten who was given to Rose for her birthday:

“ . . . she was awakened by a soft tap on her face, and opening her eyes she beheld a little black and white figure sitting on her pillow, staring at her with a pair of round eyes like blueberries, while one downy paw patted her nose to attract her notice. It was Kitty Comet, the prettiest of all the pussies, and Comet evidently had a mission to perform, for a pink bow adorned her neck, and a bit of paper was pinned to it bearing the words, ‘For Miss Rose, from Frank.’ “

My Bacci used to do that. He had enormous double paws like mittens and he would tap me on the shoulder in the middle of the night.

If Louisa and I had nothing else in common, we surely would have had animated discussions about cats!

Where else in her writing have you seen Louisa affirm her toyboyish ways?

Do you share her love of cats?


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Little Women Open Forum

Let’s start talking!

This post is acting as an open forum. Feel free in your comments to post any subjects you’d like to discuss or anything that you come across as you begin to read Little Women and we will talk about it.

For example: the last time I read Little Women I gravitated towards Amy because I had done so much reading on May Alcott Nieriker. This time I am paying strict attention to Beth in order to learn more about Lizzie Alcott. Reading between the lines is rather fun!

As a starter, I found this blog post from violinist.com – the writer focused on Beth as the introvert and had some interesting insights. Beth, of course, was an introvert but it was one of those occasions for me where I couldn’t see the forest through the trees! I began to identify with her a lot more as I am an introvert too.

What are you focusing on?

And for those of you who are reading for the first time, tell us what you think as you go through the book.

This series on Little Women will go for a while as I am a slow reader. Plenty of time for everybody to chime in!

And I promise, we won’t forget about Eight Cousins, I am making my way through that too.


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Join in the group read/re-read of Little Women

Because of all the upcoming events in Concord with regards to the centennial of Orchard House as a museum (many of the directly related to Little Women), I’ve started re-reading Louisa’s classic. Jillian from A Room of One’s Own is also re-reading (I actually got the idea from her). I invite you all to join in and we’ll share our thoughts.

I have not, by the way, abandoned  Eight Cousins – I am still reading that too but have been terribly busy of late.

Looking forward to our conversations!


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Promo film for Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House centennial celebration

The time is drawing near for Orchard House’s Centennial! Here’s a promo film they just released – lots of interesting pictures!

Visit the Orchard House website for more information on centennial celebrations this spring.


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Louisa makes her mark in the Civil War

I found this great article on Louisa May Alcott’s contribution to the Civil War. Brief as her service was, it was immortalized in her writing and helped her find her voice.

The article was found on the History in an Hour blog – here’s a teaser:

Louisa May Alcott and the American Civil War

Posted on November 22, 2011 by Rupert Colley

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, had the briefest of nursing careers: about six weeks, from start to finish.  Alcott being Alcott, she effectively morphed the experience into grist for her literary mill.

Alcott was not a Big Gun in nursing history. Her musings are not technically significant, like Florence Nightingale’s contemporaneous Notes on Nursing.  Her service does not resonate through Civil War history like that of her influential contemporaries, Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton. The product of Alcott’s nursing experience was Hospital Sketches (1863), the story of a bedside army nurse at a time when the bedside army nurse was also, typically, a Victorian spinster.  Alcott’s tale of grit and grace is as compelling now as it was in the nineteenth century.

Click here to finish the article.


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