If I spoke about a book written in the 19th century whose thinly-veiled message is that young women need to be respectful of their parents, appreciate the joys of a happy traditional home life and then added to that that the book also speaks of the love of God as the most important force in life, what would your reaction be?
Yeah, me too. Except this book has become a classic. It’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and it’s wonderful.
It’s a children’s book, of course, or at least it was a children’s book when it was written… if published today, it would be firmly Young Adult or Even aimed at adults because children no longer read at a significant level.
The positive thing about that is that Little Women can be enjoyed by adults today without the feeling that one is reading something below one’s intellectual level. Better still, the emotional punch this book packs hits across age groups.
Because Alcott’s genius is all about the characters. Other than a couple of illnesses and a marriage or two, nothing that would make the plot of most other books even happens here. It’s all about domestic life and tiny little squabbles, petty jealousies and completely plain-Jane friendships. The acts of rebellion would have Holden Caufield, to take a name at random, scratching his head and wondering if anyone actually believes that a family could be so square (Holden’s word, not mine).
There is very little in the way of interesting events, yet you still find yourself reading, you want to know that it all comes out well for the characters, and suffer with them when it doesn’t.
It’s not easy to make commonplace events, of interest mainly to gossiping grandmother types, gripping. Even hampered by 150 years under the bridge, Alcott pulls it off. She was a literary giant, and I can’t even imagine what she would be capable of if she lived today, unencumbered by the worldview of her times and circumstances. She was supposedly a feminist in her time… you could never tell unless they told you.
Modern feminists won’t enjoy this one but, if you are the kind of person who can look past a little bit of preaching of currently unpopular values and enjoy a beautiful book, you should pick up a copy. Because looking past the obvious can show you a work which has aged remarkably well.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book The Malakiad takes place in a particularly unusual version of ancient Greece. You can check it out here.