I started picking my books from the adult section of the library at 10 or 11. This made me feel quite mature and sophisticated, but it also meant I skipped reading some of the classics at the usual age for discovering them. After hearing college friends gush about their girlhood fondness for such books, I decided it was time to see what I’d missed.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying I first read Little Women at 24 rather than 12.
Coming to Louisa May Alcott’s works as an adult, I’ve always read them on two levels: as stories and as primary source documents showcasing the concerns of a bygone era. To some degree that’s true of any classic work, but when I read Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, etc. the story is in the foreground. With Alcott, the story and my analysis of it as a window to 19th century America walk hand in hand.
I think that’s because her work is so very didactic. Alcott preaches to her readers. She has Strong Opinions about the role of women, how children ought to be brought up, proper behavior, and any number of other issues, and she unabashedly uses her stories as conversion vehicles. If she were a modern author writing about current issues, I’d probably find it annoying, even if I shared all her views. But as is, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the past.
At the risk of committing heresy, I don’t think Alcott’s writing should work as well as it does. There are the aforementioned sermons, and compared to many authors on my list, her prose is rather clunky. But what she does beautifully is create appealing characters and weave a web of relationships among them. She builds communities I want to visit again and again. And that’s the writing lesson I learn from Louisa May Alcott: if you build that community, your readers will keep coming back to be a part of it.
For each of the writers in this little series, I’m going to recommend 2 or 3 of my favorite books. Here again I must be a heretic, because Little Women does not make my list:
1 & 2. Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom: Orphaned, sickly 13-year-old heiress Rose Campbell goes to live with her uncle and guardian, a doctor who restores her to health through wholesome food (milk and oatmeal good, coffee bad) and raises her to be a strong-minded young feminist. In the second volume Rose is a vibrant young woman who must choose between her party boy cousin Charlie and her geeky cousin Mac. Some readers find the outcome unsatisfying, but she picks the one I would’ve chosen for myself, unlike Jo in Little Women. (I totally would’ve married Laurie and never found anything appealing about Prof. Bhaer!)
3. An Old-Fashioned Girl: Per the usual Alcott pattern, we first see the titular heroine Polly as a young teen. The daughter of a village parson, she goes to visit a wealthy friend in Boston, and her wholesome good nature contrasts with her friend’s decadent city lifestyle. In the second half, grown-up Polly is an independent music teacher who helps her rich friend’s family when they fall upon hard times and finds true love in the process.