Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Most Amazing Little Woman

by Pa Rock
Rabid Reader

I have read a few dozen good books since arriving on Okinawa two years ago.  This past Friday night I finished yet one more volume - a collection of Louisa May Alcott's three most loved novels - Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys - as I was spending my very last evening in my Okinawan apartment.  (A friend had come early that evening and carted off my remaining groceries and my last chair - forcing me to read the final three chapters of the Alcott collection standing up!)

I had read Little Men when just a little man myself - around the age of twelve or so - and always wondered what became of some of my favorite characters like Nat, Daisy and Demi, and Tommy Bangs.  It was the first book that I had ever read where I felt a personal connection to the people in the story, and when it ended it was as though a whole group of friends had moved far away and I would never hear from them again.  Nobody told me that Little Men was not a stand-alone novel, and that it in fact had a prequel (Little Women) and a sequel (Jo's Boy's).   Now, thanks to Jo's Boys, I have the satisfaction of knowing that most of young scamps living at  Plumfield went on to enjoy happy and satisfying lives as adults.

Here's the skinny on the three novels

Little Women is the story of the March family who are living in New England during the Civil War.  Mrs. March is home alone raising her four adolescent girls (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) while Mr. March, a minister, is off providing religious support to Union troops.  Living next door to the March girls is a young man by the name of Teddy Laurence (whom they call "Laurie") and his rich grandfather, Mr. Laurence.  The Laurence's become fast friends and protectors of the March ladies.  The girls learn many matronly arts from their mother and have fun putting on plays which often give insights into the types of lives they would like to lead.

Meg, the oldest, is the most domestic, the first to marry, and becomes the mother of twins Demi and Daisy, who are featured prominently in the next two novels.  Jo is the tomboy who loves to write and push  boundaries into areas that had been reserved for men.  Jo is definitely Louisa May Alcott's alter-ego.  Beth is the delicate one who plays piano and serves to remind readers just how fleeting life can be.   Amy, the youngest, is artistic and desires to gravitate to higher social circles.  Little Women tells how these four interact among themselves and within the quickly evolving world around them.

One of the more interesting characters in Little Women is Aunt March, a crusty old widow with lots of money and a cantankerous parrot.   Though Aunt March (who would be very at home in a Dickens' novel) would never admit to having a soft heart, she does do various things to help the family of her poor nephew - the minister.  One of the things she does to help is to provide a small income to Jo by having her come over to help with her large home - Plumfield - and to read to the old lady.  Jo takes advantage of this situation by availing herself of the fine library at Plumfield.  Jo has the notion that there can be more in life for girls that just the drudgery of domestic duties, and she sees education as the key for moving on into the world controlled by men.

As the second book, Little Men, begins, Aunt March has died and left the big house, Plumfield, to Jo who has turned it into a residential school for boys.   Jo, who moved to New York City for awhile where she taught and wrote, met a professor from Germany whom she eventually married.  Together they have created the school at Plumfield.  The story opens as a young orphan, Nat Blake, shows up at the gate.  He has been discovered by Laurie, now an adult, wandering the streets and making a few pennies playing his fiddle.  Nat serves as a focus for the readers as life at Plumfield is explored and enjoyed.

Jo's Boys takes place ten years after the period described in Little Men.  It focuses of the main characters of the previous two novels and shows how their lives have evolved.  One of Jo's boys spends a year in prison for accidentally killing a man in a fight.  Another is shipwrecked and nearly dies while saving others.  And a third temporarily loses himself to an easy lifestyle that nearly ruins him.  But overall, Jo's Boys is a feel-good novel that emphasizes the benefits of virtuous living.

The three novels interlock nicely and tell a full and satisfying tale that spans several decades.  Much of the material for the stories seems to come directly from the life of the author.  As alluded to earlier, Louisa May Alcott is Jo, a woman bent on helping others and encouraging them to move beyond their expected roles in society.  One of the most illustrative characters is Naughty Nan whom Jo invites to live at Plumfield when she is a small girl.  Nan was to be a friend and playmate to Daisy, and both girls were expected to be a calming influence on the boisterous boys.  Jo challenges and pushes Nan to not be satisfied with being ordinary, and the naughty little girl eventually blossoms into a hard-working physician.  Nan in fact, becomes the person the author would have liked to have been if she had had but one more lifetime.

Louisa May Alcott was the daughter of educational reformer Bronson Alcott.  She grew up around such literary figures as Emerson and Thoreau.   Her father helped Thoreau to build his cabin on Walden Pond, and the author and other members of her family would visit Thoreau at his cabin in the woods.  The Alcott's knew abolitionist John Brown, and his widow stayed with them for awhile.

Alcott's works occasionally speak to her passions for the abolition of slavery, temperance, and women's suffrage.  And though all of those issues drove her in life, it was through her love of children that she earned her lasting legacy - creating three novels that showed any child could become a success if they were given love, opportunity, and careful guidance.    Louisa May Alcott was small of stature, but big of voice - and though she had no children of her own, she became a wise and loving mother to generations.

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