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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

By Anne Boyd Rioux

W.W. Norton, 2018

This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. Over the years, Jo, the fictional March family’s second, rebellious daughter, has been seen by adventurous girls as a role model. Apparently Jo was based on Alcott herself, and the other three March sisters in the book mirror Alcott’s own three siblings.

When it first appeared, Alcott’s book was ground-breaking because it was written in a realist style. While Marmee’s admonitions to her girls are sometimes preachy, the book lacks the deadly sermon-like style of most Victorian- era children’s books.

Still, Alcott’s book sends a mixed message. Alcott, who famously said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe,” than be dependent on a man for financial support, never married. And in her book Meg marries a man who is poor, Beth dies, Amy is regarded as frivolous because she aspires to wealth and beauty, and Jo, after an early start as a writer, ends up marrying a man old enough to be her father, and running a school.

To my childish understanding, this sent the same message that I saw at my all-girls’ school, where all the teachers were what used to be called spinsters: that being a writer – or a teacher – means giving up the idea of a joyful, companionate marriage of equals. For boring Professor Bhaer, whom Jo chooses as her husband is anything but sexy, and he talks down to her. So for reasons described further in my article, How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity, which appeared this week in the online magazine Women Writers, Women’s Books, I identified with both Jo and her older sister Meg, my namesake. I wanted it all.

As time went on, generation after generation of girls identified with the March sisters, and more intellectual girls identified with Jo. As Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, in the middle of the twentieth century feminist scholars began to dissect Little Women with new intensity. They brought to light Alcott’s darker theme. Jo, who fought against conventional behavior for women, is eventually controlled by her older husband, and Beth, the perfect, submissive adolescent, dies. Rioux suggests that Beth died of anorexia, a symptom of girls who resist the physical and mental changes puberty brings.

Rioux is concerned that Alcott is no longer taught in American schools. Apparently teachers feel boys won’t read books about girls, while girls are expected to devour classics about boys. Huck Finn is in, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are out.

In a telling paragraph, Rioux notes: “The main obstacle to Little Women’s continued popularity, though, is that young readers are interested in a fundamentally different kind of literature. Girls want adventure, not domestic drama, and they are much more interested in fantasy than realism.”

To my mind, this demonstrates that not much has changed. If girls like heroines who are “witches, warrior princesses or hunters”, then the idea that a girl on the cusp of puberty can truly aspire to the same life choices that are held out to boys, is still far from being the norm.

Read my article in Women Writers, Women’s Books here:


By Tara Westover
Random House, 2018

This beautifully written memoir is on the best seller list, and deserves to be.

Tara, the youngest of seven children of a fundamentalist Mormon family, never went to public school. Instead, she worked from the age of ten as a babysitter, in a grocery store, and for her father in his scrapyard. She also helped her mother midwife babies, and used elementary first aid skills when her family members were injured, which was often. Amazingly, encouraged by one of her older brothers, who had escaped through going to college, Tara took a college entrance test at the age of sixteen and was admitted to Brigham Young University. Eventually she went on to earn a doctorate at Cambridge University.

What struck me about this memoir – and I have been reading a lot of survivalist and counter-cultural memoirs lately, researching my new novel – was how intelligent the members of this family were. Given Tara’s father’s religiosity, which bordered on insanity, and his psychological hold on the family, the five sons and both daughters managed to support themselves while still very young. The father shouted that women should not work outside the home, but pushed his reluctant wife into being a midwife. With the money she earned, she put in a phone line to the house.

Except for the phone, the trucks and cars, this could be life in the American West in the nineteenth century.

Tara portrays her parents with unflinching realism. Her mother constantly placated her father, who, though not deliberately violent with his family, made dangerous decisions, including not trusting the medical profession. Even when one of his sons was so badly injured in a motor-cycle accident that Tara, coming upon the scene, could see his brain through the head-wound, the father wanted Tara to bring the boy home so his mother could treat him. To her credit, Tara took him to the hospital.

Tara’s internal conflicts make up the core of this story. One suspects that what made her so conflicted, as opposed to so angry at her father’s treatment of his family is that when he did get pushback from them, he allowed whatever it was they wanted to do. His control over them was actually weaker than any of them believed. Tara Westover’s love for her family and for the Idaho mountain where they lived, pitted against her determination to make something of herself, makes this a compelling read.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

By Rebecca Rosenberg
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

I am at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, as I write this. Only its location as a terminus of the ferry to San Francisco reminds us now of London’s love of the sea and of nature. In this historical novel Rebecca Rosenberg reminds us of California in the early twentieth century – a growing, vibrant, place where there was room to build a new society among the redwoods and ranches.

Jack London was one of California’s most influential early writers, a best seller who pursued new ideas of socialism and sustainability while mortgaging himself to the hilt to become a land baron, collecting admirers, and drinking round the clock. He also had a wife who was his close collaborator. Yet Charmian, who was as bright, ambitious, as intellectually curious, and even wealthier than he in her own right, has been forgotten.

Beginning eight or so years into the marriage, the novel shows Charmian’s growing frustration with Jack’s waning desire for her, even as she does everything for him.

He says, “It’s the institution of marriage that strangles love, isn’t it?…over the years the face of your beloved becomes as familiar as your own.”

She says, “You take my visions and ideas and turn them into literature that will be praised and read by generations to come…I tell myself it’s enough to be part of your genius. But is it? Is it really?”

This classic interplay between writer and his female muse infuses the novel, whose tension gathers with Charmian’s increasing frustration. She’s a writer too, but because she’s a woman, is seen only as his wife and typist. In Rosenberg’s excellent portrayal, we are in Charmian’s head, unable to work a way out of her dilemma. Her constant attention to Jack’s needs becomes claustrophobic. Rosenberg cleverly uses the escape artist Houdini, a friend of Jack and Charmian London, as a metaphor as well as a key plot element to enable her to unlock the key to a wider world.

Rosenberg writes evocatively of the gorgeous natural environment of Glen Ellen, a place where vineyards now thrive, of Hawaii and of the cities of the East Coast on the brink of America’s involvement in World War I. But it is her insightful and compassionate understanding of the complex relationship between two brilliant people that really makes this novel stand out.

Highly recommended.