Thursday, December 15, 2011

Classy Classics

In today's post, I'm doing something a little different than my usual book review.  Today, I'm posting on a book that's considered a classic. Naturally, such a title hardly requires a review; if it did it wouldn't be considered a classic in the first place (like, duh).  This classics post focuses on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, which was one of my favorite books as a teen and remains so today.  I also associate the book with the holiday season, perhaps because the book begins at this time of year.  Regardless, this is my happy feels book I read almost annually (I really need to break down and buy a nice hardcopy; I've been through 3 paperbacks by now).

The Basics
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Signet Classic, 2004. Print.

Little Women follows the lives of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The  girls are 16, 15, 13, and 12 respectively when the book opens, and readers shadow the girls through their teen years as they become young women.  Much of the story is based on Alcott's real life experiences with her own sisters, so it makes sense that the books seem to focus largely on Jo March (the character most closely resembling Alcott). However, the novel does often divert from Jo in order to tell the stories of the other sisters to the fullest.  The book is a heartwarmingly wholesome story for young girls that pulls readers delightfully into the 1860s American household in Concord, Massachusetts. 

Why You Should Read this Book (and/or force it on the nearest young adult)
One of the best features of the novel is its focus on overcoming struggles that life presents and bettering yourself along the way.  Though by no means poverty stricken, the March family has fallen on harder economic times after one of their father's investments goes south.  This puts the girls in the odd position of being in an upper class family without the means to reflect that status. They also face the hardship of being without their father, who has joined the Union army as a chaplain. This leaves the girls, along with the stalwart Ms. March, to run the household themselves. The March girls face these challenges as well as the challenges of their own individual personality flaws as they work to become the best "little women" possible (as patronizing as that phrase can sound, I think this novel means it more as the start to womanhood than anything else).  The books is full of little successes and joys as well as hard times and tragedies, making it a well-rounded, engagingly realistic read.

Little Women is almost entirely character driven. While it has little plot points that occur throughout the novel and a few larger (if more subtle) ones that unite the story as a whole, Little Women is primarily centered on the everyday lives of its heroines.  Meg, the eldest, is a sweet tempered, beautiful girl on the cusp of womanhood. Meg most remembers the March family's former wealth, and her desire to return to that former status combined with her vanity is her biggest struggle.  She must resist the trappings of a wealthy life that would only make her materially happy.  Jo is tomboyish and a little wild with aspirations to become a great writer and avoid becoming a young lady as long as possible. Over the course of the novel Jo works to overcome her more imprudent spontaneity and her hot temper.  Beth is the sweetest, kindest of the March girls, but she is also painfully shy and fearful of strangers.  Her challenge in life is to overcome her shyness enough to make friends and accept kind overtures.  She also faces her own sickly constitution, which she handles with a grace and infinite patience that inspires her sisters to better themselves.  Amy is slightly spoiled, very vain and proud, and somewhat inclined toward selfishness; however, she also has a sweet an loving nature. The first half of the novel sees Amy work to overcome the selfish parts of her nature and begin thinking more of others than of herself.  In the latter half, Amy gradually turns her vanity and pride into being a proper young lady. It's nearly impossible not to like and identify with Alcott's characters.

I also really enjoy the sense of the period that the book provides.  Readers are exposed to a charming  19th century New England that nevertheless maintains a sense of realism.  Through the girls, readers are exposed to ideas of dress, propriety, class and religion common to the era.  You also get a strong sense of womanhood in the period (albeit a specific class level), as well as common activities, socializing and the important role marriage played in a young girl's life.  Along with your enjoyable read, you also get a small slice of history if you're clever enough to notice it.



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