Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Books

The gift of a book that lasts a lifetime

These might be discouraging words for those now engaged in the frenzy of holiday shopping, but most of the gifts kids get in December are forgotten by Groundhog Day, if not by New Year's.

But for many of us, there are a few that are memorable. And for some of us, there was a gift that changed our lives.

For me, that gift was a hardback Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library copy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a Christmas present from my parents when I was 7 years old. I was already an avid reader; I learned to read when I was 3 ½, taught by the exasperated relatives who were tired of being bugged to read to me. (The reading got me in trouble when I arrived in kindergarten and my teacher refused to believe I didn't need to start with the ABCs — although she soon put me to work reading aloud to my classmates while she took a cigarette break.)

But I remember little about those early books. Little Women was the lightning bolt that left them all in the shade.

It was hardly a new book, having first been published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, about 90 years before I found it wrapped up under the tree. But that was part of its charm. The world of the March girls (say it with me: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy), a Massachusetts town during the Civil War, seemed so different from my life in a 1950s Tampa suburb that it was downright exotic. The sweetly sentimental illustrations in the edition I received enhanced that sense of visiting another time and place, although Alcott didn't really need any help to paint a vivid picture.

As a child, I should have been daunted by the book's 546-page length, but I wasn't. To me, that meant a whole big world to dive into. I started reading it on Christmas Day, with the opening scene of the sisters talking about Christmas presents. I recall not only devouring the book but reading it over and over.

Another girl on my block was just as obsessed with it, and by summer we were staging plays on each other's carports based on its scenes. Her older sister was mad about The Mikado, so to have enough people for core casts we took turns singing Three Little Maids From School Are We and putting on Beth March's heart-rending death scene. My friend always had to play Beth.

That was fine with me, because I had to be Jo. For me, Jo was the essence of Little Women.

She is, of course, a thinly disguised version of Alcott herself, one of four daughters of Abigail and Bronson Alcott, intellectuals who were key figures in the transcendentalist movement. Bronson was a philosopher and educator, Abigail a suffragette and abolitionist, so Louisa was raised to be independent and to value education; her teachers included Henry David Thoreau.

She was also, for much of her life, the main support of her family. She began writing as a teenager; some of her fiction was serious social critique, but she made more money for sensational potboilers she wrote under a nom de plume. She also wrote books for children, and the semiautobiographical Little Women was by far her greatest success (so much so she chafed at her publishers' insistence she write its several sequels).

I didn't know all that at age 7, of course. All I knew was that Jo, a fiercely independent spirit who relished being called a "tomboy" and a "bookworm" by her ladylike older sister and who lived to read and write, was who I wanted to be.

I was enchanted by the book's description of Jo up in the garret of the March family's house, "eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe, wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by a sunny window. It was Jo's favorite refuge, and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book, to enjoy the quiet and the society of a pet rat who lived near by and didn't mind her a particle."

So charmed was I by that scene that I lamented to my mother that our Florida ranch house lacked both a garret and rats. I don't recall garnering much sympathy — my mom was rather more inclined to sarcasm than the March girls' unfailingly sweet Marmee — but she did tell me I could have all the apples I wanted.

As I grew up, other books filled my head, and I reread Little Women less often and then not at all, although that Christmas copy stayed on my shelf. Much later, after grad school in literature and a dozen years of teaching and eight more as a journalist and book critic, I picked it up again in 1994, to write about the movie version that came out that year (the sixth based on the book), starring Susan Sarandon as Marmee and Winona Ryder as Jo.

Some criticism of the movie at the time decried it as a "feminist" version of the book. I wrote a column pointing out that the book itself was feminist all along, thank you very much, and didn't need to be revised to convey a portrait of strong, smart, mutually supportive women.

Rereading it then, I could give that feminist theme a name as I couldn't have at 7, although I know I grasped its message early. I also found that, even though as an adult trained to read books critically I could see its sentimentality and stereotypes, Little Women still spoke to me with its humor and compassion and storytelling power.

And I still teared up at Beth's death.

Looking over it again, another 21 years later — the same copy, lovingly battered and frayed — I still know whole passages by heart. And I still know Jo March as I know myself — both of us girls who grew up with the gift of a life among books.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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