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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Book Review: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux (audiobook)

My first attempt at reading Little Women failed. I managed to read the first half. (In my defense, originally Little Women was two separate books and what I read was the first book.) But I did go back a couple of years later and read the whole thing. I read it a couple more times as a kid--I remember being quite intrigued and simultaneously baffled by all the references to and--more baffling--aspirations to live life according to the seemingly draconian precepts of A Pilgrim's Progress which I felt like I'd read, after reading Little Women. I'd seen a couple of the movies, but felt no great affinity until the Winona Ryder version which, except for some liberties at the end in  merging Jo's storyline with the author's own life, felt so much more accurate to both the story and emotions of the book, and is now my personal definitive version, and I watch it every year around Christmas.

I have two sisters and at times we've been the best of friends and the worst of enemies. I come from a larger family as well, having grown up with 3 step-siblings and also having a half-brother (on the other side), so all of those aspects of the novel really resonated with me. Earlier this year, PBS had a vote on what should be The Great American Novel, and despite many, many problems I had with the lists (all the non-American books on it to start), after much thought, I ended up voting for Little Women. I also had a strange, mind-blowing moment about a decade ago when I realized that while not written at the same time, Little Women and Gone With the Wind cover pretty much the same time periods, and Jo and Scarlett are contemporaries, although they seem to be from such different worlds, they might has well have been different planets.

So when I heard about this non-academic deep dive into Little Women, I was intrigued. It gives a history, biography of Louisa May Alcott and family, context of the time when she wrote it, and her own background and how it influenced the writing. It then goes on to discuss the popularity, the sequels, the enduring legacy, the ups and downs, the media portrayals (more ups and downs), the ramifications, the influences, and even the common ground it can lay. (For example, the first three women Supreme Court Justices all listed Little Women as an influence on them, despite rather differing political views.)

It reminded me of bits of the book I'd forgotten. It contextualized parts I'd not understood. It explains aspects I had believed I understood, and yet had deeper meaning (such as Jo's hair being "her one beauty" and how that reflected on Louisa's own perceived--or real--lack of beauty.) I loved every minute of this book, and while I likely won't reread the book again, at least not anytime soon, I am very much looking forward to my rewatch of the movie next month with renewed excitement. And yes, I am going to see the newest version too (the PBS version from a few months ago to me seemed fine, but nothing special, and therefore unnecessary.) Anyone who's ever loved Little Women should very much check out this deep dive into the novel and its place in history.

I bought the digital audiobook from Libro.fm. A portion of the proceeds go to Main Street Books in Davidson, NC, an independent bookstore.

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