Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy- The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux
Like many women, I read Little Women in my middle school years and fell in love with it. It will never quite occupy the place in my heart that Anne of Green Gables does, but I was fascinated by the story of the four March sisters and their friendship with Laurie. I loved watching them love each other and fight with each other and grow up, each taking their own path.
Meg, Beth, Jo, and Amy is written by an English Literature professor, and reading it is like attending a superb lecture on the topic of the book Little Women. Rioux discusses Alcott's history and how the book came into being (it was a commissioned piece that she wasn't very excited about writing. I never knew that!), as well as how it changed Alcott's life, bringing her to fame. Rioux dives deep into the characters and the setting of the story and explores how readers have connected with them over the years as well as how academia has analyzed them. Jo March is cited as one of the top inspirations of women authors, who first felt that drive to write after reading about Jo's literary pursuits. The third section of the book examines the way Little Women has impacted culture, and how as our culture has changed, the way we read it as changed. Once championed as a favorite book by both sexes, it is now viewed as an exclusively female book, a view that I think would very much disappoint Alcott who was so pleased to see it beloved by children and adults of both genders.
Particularly poignant for me was the chapter in the third section where Rioux discusses the genderization of literature, all the way down to board books, which are many of our children's first experiences with the written word. She decries the phenomenon, giving emphasis to the double standard within the divide, where girls are expected to enjoy reading books with male protagonists, but boys are derided if they are caught reading a book with a female lead character. She discusses that we have taken things so far that many male readers won't even pick up books by female authors, and that JK Rowling went by her initials to have appeal to a broader audience, as well as the fact that The Hunger Games books have covers that display symbols as opposed to a female lead as polling showed that the symbols better appealed to male readers. She dives deep into the risks of this and how, especially in this day, we need to be cultivating empathy and understanding in our boys about girls and women, not reinforcing how different and separate they are, not teaching them that they can't possibly enjoy a story about a girl's life and adventures, and especially not that they should write off literature simply because it is written by a woman. Rioux hopes we will get back to a place where a book like Little Women, that features a variety of female portrayals, can be enjoyed by children of both genders again. I have purposely sought out books with strong female lead characters for my daughter, but this chapter strengthened my resolve to make sure I share those stories with my son too.
My biggest hang up with Little Women has always been its length. The book is a tome! It can get a bit tedious at times. Rioux taught me that in the UK it is published in two separate editions. I think that would have definitely appealed to me as a young reader, so I may seek out the UK edition for my own children hoping to help them enjoy it as much as possible. I loved learning, too, that the original illustrations commissioned for the books' publishing featured the image of the girls gathered round Marmee in her wingback chair, reading a letter from their father to them. This image has become indelibly associated with Little Women in all our minds, and has been recreated for nearly every published edition and film adaptation. What a sweet association!
Rioux devotes a chapter to the discussion of film adaptations of the book, so of course when I finished reading, I had to watch my favorite adaptation- the 1995 Winona Ryder version. I loved it yet again! I may even love that film adaptation more than I love the book. Ryder tones down Jo's manliness a bit, softening her edges, and making her more of a strong female than a wannabe male. Also, Sarandon's Marmee is just a little more supportive and gentle than Alcott's preachy Marmee of the book, which I find more endearing. If you haven't watched it in a while, I'd recommend you give it a go.
This book is absolutely lovely and a must for any Little Women lover.