Jo finds a new self in the Valley

Before I begin, I must say that right now I am positively swooning over the reading I am doing! Little Women is (sadly) winding down but surely going out with a bang. At the same time, Gone with the Wind is ramping up! It’s so cool reading two books about the Civil War era (my favorite part of history), one from the North and the other from the South. It amazes me how different it was for women in the South.  But that’s for another post. As Scarlett would say, “Tomorrow is another day!” 🙂

(And I intend to write about Amy and Laurie soon, I’m combining the chapters about their relationship into one big post).

Chapter 40, “The Valley of the Shadow,” is the one chapter from Little Women that I remember when I tried to read it in school as a child. The whole saga of Beth always fascinated me for some reason. This chapter was so utterly poetic and beautiful and tragic. I could deeply relate to Jo as caregiver, for my sister and I did the same for our mother for a long time. It consumes your whole being; your life is literally on hold. Louisa, as always so accurately (since she experienced it herself being caregiver for younger sister Lizzie), describes Jo’s time as a caregiver and how her life went on hold.

I remember having to give up my music and all outside activities for at least a year while we cared for my mother. There was no time or energy even for creative thoughts. As Jo threw herself into Beth’s care, so my sister and I did for our mother.

I have seen one person actually pass away (my father) and have witnessed both parents going through the Valley and I wish I could say it was peaceful, but they both fought it. When reading about Beth’s passing, I found myself getting a little angry, feeling cheated that my parents hadn’t experienced a peaceful death and wondering if it actually existed, or if it was just a romantic way of saying someone went into a coma and passed away.

Louisa’s weaving of spirituality into Beth’s passing reminded me again why I seem to be attracted to such things -I believe this is when people are the most real. All masks fall away and you see the soul of the person who is dying, and of the people who are saying goodbye. It’s bitter sweet.

I used to sing a lot at weddings and funerals at my church, along with other musicians (we have a very musical parish). We all agreed that we actually prefer doing funerals because that is when the music we bring truly ministers to people who are in need of comfort. Singing at a wedding is lovely and fun, but often it’s just window dressing. At funerals, people are raw and vulnerable. I can actually do more than just make pretty music: I can apply a little balm to the wound.

Many people have lost loved ones and can attest to the life-changing nature of that loss. I certainly can which was why Chapter 42, “All Alone,” felt like my story.

There are contemporary commentators who rail on Louisa for allowing Jo to ‘take on’ Beth, basically absorbing her personality (most especially in Little Women, The Norton Critical Edition and the essay, “Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women” by Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant), but it made me wonder if they had actually ever experienced what Jo went through. I have, and I can tell you that the spirit of the dear one who has passed does linger and does become a part of you, even if you don’t will it to happen. Jo’s evolution into a calmer self that accepted the sacrifice of her hopes, that took on duty and obligation, is a natural consequence of the trauma she went through. In essence, Jo grew up.

In the process of growing up, Jo found a new voice. I found it quite amusing that she couldn’t understand why her ‘little story’ was so well received. I’m guessing that in finding her voice (and in having a heart still so raw and vulnerable), she was able to speak for many because of the authenticity she put into her writing. I know for myself, there’s nothing more satisfying than reading a book and saying, “I’ve felt that!”

Reading Jo’s journey as a writer got me very excited, for I feel like I’m on the same journey. My mother’s passing has changed me in wonderful ways and I too am beginning to find my voice. I haven’t enjoy writing this much since I was a kid (and the same is true for reading). I so look forward to writing both this blog and my spiritual one because as I write, I work out what I’m sensing and feeling, and learning new things. And I love to learn!

Louisa’s writing touches me in the deepest parts of myself and it’s hard to explain. Her characters are so alive for me and I shall miss them dearly when this book is done.

I can hardly wait to write the post about Amy and Laurie. What a story that was!

3 Replies to “Jo finds a new self in the Valley”

  1. *I believe this is when people are the most real. All masks fall away and you see the soul of the person who is dying, and of the people who are saying goodbye. It’s bitter sweet.*

    This made me cry. I can’t imagine having to watch my father – go. I learned of it later. It would be excrutiating, but then, most things like that are beautiful, in their way.

    I’m happy to hear you’re loving Gone With the Wind. I experienced the same surrealness, reading GWTW right after LW. They’re very different, for sure. 🙂

  2. Beth’s death is very indicative of sentimental novels of the period. Death scenes always feature selfless unsuffering characters (often children) who are eager to leave this life for a “better” one. I didn’t believe anyone could ever act like that but I’ve read a few 18th and 19th century examples of real life death scenes that read like straight out of a novel.

    1. Not having read much of anything of the time (being a relatively new reader and concentrating pretty much on Alcott), I didn’t know that. The real-life Lizzie’s death was long, drawn-out and gruesome. Beth’s death was tremendously sanitized and romanticized, understandable considering the average age of the reader.

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