Reading Challenge Book 3: Little Women

Since Sunday, I have traveled away from Pip’s London to spend time in my native New England during the years of the American Civil War, so that I might mingle with members of the March family.

Little Women is one of those books that is best read on a snowy or rainy day, with lots of tea, assortments of bread, fruits, and cake.

Sadly, I don’t have cake on hand and did not feel compelled to bake or buy one, so I had to do without. Despite this disappointment, it was still a lovely read and allowed me to reminisce on the horrors I endured during my last reading of Little Women, contemplate my tricky relationship with my sisters, as well as gave me the push to give way to my imagination and the freedom it has been aching sail across. It’s been a very contemplative experience.

For those worried about my lack of cake, I am presently eating a box of oreos to make up for the appalling dessertless gap in my life. (Expert hint: oreos are best when they’ve been in the freezer).  

About the book:
For those who are unfamiliar with this American classic, Louisa May Alcott wrote this semi-autobiographical novel in 1868 & 1869, set in New England during the American Civil War. The story follows the lives of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, highlighting their trials, their fears, their ambitions, their best moments and their worst, and most importantly the deep love that bound them together as they grow.

While somewhat simple in its structure, this story has been beloved by readers generation after generation, and I suspect will continue to be held in high esteem by the generations to come. It has inspired several film adaptations, the most popular being the 1994 film featuring Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale. I believe there is a new adaptation that will be coming out later this year.

At its roots, Little Women is a coming-of-age story of both individuals as well as the family unit; that is, how one grows personally and how a family evolves together. The four girls are wonderfully unique and lead meaningful stories away from their central grouping; evoking so much heart, that they almost come to life. By infusing Alcott’s own story into this one, you can feel the authenticity of these characters and feel all of their pains, their efforts, and their joys tangibly.

I think it would be a mistake to write this book off as a “girls” book or something only to be read by the Ya Ya Sisterhood (please don’t age me if you don’t know this reference). The themes of conflict, personal ambition, family responsibility, war, and love are something any person can relate to and I believe this story does so in a truly timeless manner.

Reaction at age 19:
I first read Little Women in the midst of my emotional drowning.

At the time, I was living in a barn with my mother and oldest sister – as well as the horses that lived beneath our loft – somewhere in northern Virginia. Due to the financial situation (aka there being zero money), we could neither turn on the heat in the winter nor air conditioning when it was sweltering in the summer. Whatsmore, our apartment would often rattle whenever one of our equine co-habitants kicked a wall, causing lots of startles in the middle of the night. None of these things though, really bothered me. Coming from Connecticut I could bundle up through the cold, and while I am no fan of humidity or heat, the summers were survivable.

There was one issue, though, that nearly did me in. And that was a massive infestation of stink bugs.

When we first viewed the apartment, it was winter time and although we saw a few stink bug carcasas, we shrugged it off by assuming the apartment simply hadn’t had a tenant in some time and needed some cleaning up. However, once the winter chill began to dissipate under the spring melt, those little carcasses began to twitch back to life and before we knew it, there was an entire army of their brethren infiltrating every crevice of that loft.

Now, I have always been a smidge sensitive to the creepy-crawly walks of life and continue to be traumatized by the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom bug scene. So when their numbers became so engorged that we could barely see out the window – for that’s where many would congregate – I felt the staples of my sanity begin to detach. They were in my clothes, in the sheets of my blow up mattress, on the counters, on the ceiling, – they were everywhere. I still have hauntings where I can hear their clicking at night as they crawled above my head.

So naturally, this set the perfect atmosphere for reading Little Women.

I say that with a bundle of snark, but I also mean it with truth. I was quite miserable, but out of loyalty to my mother and a devotion to stubbornness, I did my best to hide how overwhelmed I was by those heathen insects. My best tactic, of course, was to read.

What Little Women gave me, at that time, was not something especially profound or life altering; but it gave me peace of mind and a temporary escape to a family I wished I could be a member of. It was not hard to imagine myself as one of the March sisters, as I am the youngest of 3 girls and know such dynamics well. My sisters and I had written plays and stories, created fantasy worlds only us three knew, explored the woods behind our house, invented games and amusements to keep our minds occupied in the age before AOL and cell phones.

Through Little Women, I was able to dip back into the years of my childhood that were fun and sparkly and full of dead animals. That’s right. Dead. Animals. (They were dead when we found them).

Our house was surrounded by woods and my sisters and I, being the incredible adventurers we were, explored every inch of it we could. So much did we love this area that we decided to build a series of forts (ie. sticks leaning against trees) to form a sisterly village. During one of our days of excavation, we began digging what I believe was meant to be a fire pit, and found bones.

I think I was under 5, and firmly believed that we had found a dinosaur (thank you Bill Nye the Science Guy for the inspiration).

Amazingly enough, after we collected all the bones and presented them to my mother, she laughed at us, cleaned them, and let us keep our prize. She also broke the news that it was most likely a deer, but I was still proud of our unified accomplishment.

For some reason, this is the memory that came to me back when I read Little Women in that stink-bug metropolis. I thought of the family I once had, the bond I had with my sisters, and the unrestrained imagination we had as children. And even though it only took me a few hours to finish the novel, that time brightened up the bleakness around me. The clicking of bugs softened, the temperature eased, and I was just myself: the youngest of three girls, playing in her backyard, with no notion that I would end up where I was.

Reaction at 27:
There’s a moment when Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and their beloved companion Laurie, daydream about what their dream lives – their “castles in the air” – would look like, be like, feel like. Meg hopes to be the mistress of a lovely home, filled with pretty items, and plenty of money. Jo wishes for piles of books, to be a famous and wealthy writer of heroic tales. Beth wants nothing more than the simple life she already has. While Amy dreams of being the greatest artist “in the whole world”.

As the girls grow into women, their castles shift in form, and the ones they evolve into are the lives they hadn’t necessarily anticipated, but prefered to the ones their younger selves had designed. While their initial visions did not exactly hit the mark, the heart of them did. Meg sought a sense of home, Jo sought a career as a writer, Amy dreamed of beauty and art. In many ways, those things manifested and came to be.

I can hardly remember what I dreamed of when I was a little girl. I’m not sure I ever looked out so far into my future. So much did I live in my books, among the trees in my yard, and in the stories playing along my imagination, that I don’t think I much contemplated where I was going beyond where I presently was.

I do know that by the time I was 12, which is about how old Amy was at during that scene, I had already begun to believe that the things I longed for and dreamed of were not a possibility for me. To look too far into the future, meant that I would possibly see the version of myself that did not succeed, that did not make it past the absolute nuttiness of my household and family. It was far better to live vicariously through the characters of my books, than to step into my own shoes and live my own adventures.

As I finished Little Women yesterday, I wished to lay in some field, gaze at the clouds above, and daydream about my castle in the air. What would it look like? What would I fill it with? Who would be there?

I think perhaps, it’s finally time for me to let myself daydream and set my imagination free once more.

Little Women has stood the test of time for a reason: it tells a story we all know, yet still need to learn. We are attracted to stories about growing and about how we become ourselves. This is that story, and it is told in such a beautiful and touching manner.

I am grateful for the kind, if not quirky, memories it brings me and am excited my the imagination it inspires.

Up Next:
For the next book of my reading challenge, I’ll be reading my absolute favorite book, Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver.

As a reminder, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon, if any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!

February 18: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – originally read at age 18
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

See you on Monday!

One Comment on “Reading Challenge Book 3: Little Women

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