In her essay for March Sisters, Carmen Maria Machado writes about her own youth: “When people asked me about my favorite books, the list was always in flux, but Little Women was always there.” As an adult, I still list it as my favorite book; in fact, whenever I get this question, every other wonderful work immediately slips from memory, leaving behind only Louisa May Alcott’s biggest hit. I attribute this staying power both to the book itself, and to the 1994 film adaptation starring Winona Ryder, which I have committed to memory like any good lesbian who grew up in the ‘90s. But I digress.
Louisa May Alcott’s success in chronicling something as ordinary as her own family was encouraging and intoxicating to me as a young writer. Little Women has also shaped the kinds of books I love to read: quiet stories about people, not plot. I live not far from Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, and have made the pilgrimage to the home where Alcott grew up and wrote this incredible story; there you can see her writing desk, and original pencil drawings by May—Alcott’s youngest sister and the inspiration for Amy—all over the walls of the house, preserved behind thick Plexiglas. I’ve visited the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery down the road, too, where Alcott lies beside her sister, Lizzie, and her parents, just a stone’s throw from the graves of Emerson and Thoreau. (Her marker is unassuming, set into the grass; readers and writers come and leave not flowers but pencils and pennies, for her thoughts.)
Given all this, you can imagine I was excited to learn that a group of incredible authors had written about their own connections to Alcott’s most famous work, in honor of the 150th anniversary of Little Women. Overall, their efforts did not disappoint. March Sisters (2019) is a slim but powerful anthology, with one essay dedicated to each of the four iconic sisters. While the collection has one big (queer) blind spot, and a bit of a speedbump toward the end, these quibbles are outweighed by the essays’ deeply personal takes on identity, ambition, and what it means—and has meant—to be a woman.
I had never thought much about the fashion aspect of Little Women until I read Kate Bolick’s essay on Meg, which kicks off the collection, and I was delighted by how this piece resonated with me (the Virginia Woolf references sure didn’t hurt). Fashion is the key Bolick uses to access poignant realizations about growing up as a girl in the late 20th Century, caught between what our feminist moms told us was important—career, personal success—and the aspirational beauty sold to us by society. Is there a way to live in both worlds, Bolick asks, and still be a good feminist? Or is “pretty a prison,” after all?
My favorite bits of March Sisters happen when the writers share how Little Women, and reading in general, have impacted their lives. Bolick, for example, uses her own Meg-at-the-ball moment to comment on the way literature layers into our lived experience over time:
“…I do believe that books seep into us and change us in ways we can’t keep track of….many years later, I experienced the same event in my own life, without remembering [Meg’s]. After that, more years passed, until I finally…revisited Meg’s frock shock on the page, but this time through the scrim of my own memory, as if overlaying Alcott’s words with a sheet of tracing paper on which I’d sketched my own experience.”
Bolick perfectly captures in this passage the mercurial nature of a good book: that it is different each time we pick it up, because we, too, are different.
Jenny Zhang’s essay on Jo, the star of Little Women, is in direct conversation with Bolick’s piece, a sensation I wish had carried through all four of the retrospectives. Both Zhang and Bolick share stories about mothers passing down advice that serves only to confuse and frustrate their daughters, who are growing up in a world with brand-new rules. Where Bolick tried her best to cleave to maternal counsel for as long as she could, Zhang railed against her mother’s definition of womanhood: one of sacrifice and silence. Perhaps the biggest sacrifice of all, Zhang notes, was her mother’s emigration from China, away from her own family and personal dreams. It is only with age that Zhang comes to understand her mother’s “voluptuous rage” (which is maybe my new favorite phrase), as well as her own.
Zhang creates powerful moments in this essay by drawing parallels between the expectations placed upon her as a first-generation daughter of immigrants in modern-day America and those that squeezed rebellious Jo—and Alcott—in the late 19th Century:
“…I doggedly pursued writing and some elusive, stupid notion of “genius” more than I pursued whatever notions of domestic bliss my parents and mainstream society tried to program me and every other little girl into wanting. Maybe I committed the same sin as…all the spinsters before me committed—thought I could have it all when, in reality, all women must choose.”
Throughout this essay, Zhang questions whether either choice can create a meaningful life for a woman, or if there is some magical way to thrive in the gray between.
It’s no surprise that I was most looking forward to Carmen Maria Machado’s contribution to March Sisters. I’m a lesbian, and a writer, so I’m naturally a massive fan of hers. I knew I would own this book as soon as she tweeted about her involvement. While I was disappointed that she wasn’t handling the obviously queer-coded Jo (more on that later), I was thrilled that she was charged with the darkest aspect of the book: the illness and death of Beth March. I love Machado’s brand of spooky, and she did not disappoint. It would have been easy for her to write about the horror inherent in a child, a sibling, dying. And Machado does touch on how “creepy” Beth’s illness is, how sad her premature death, but these are things that frighten those left behind. Machado chooses instead to focus on what is most terrifying for the dead or dying: the loss of control over their own story.
I have had several people close to me die tragically young. What usually happens is this: their memory is flattened into only what was saintly and good about them, no rough edges or black marks. They are beatified to the point of dehumanization. Returning to Little Women as an adult, with these deaths at my back, the descriptions of Beth read like an elegy. I don’t blame Alcott for remembering her real, dead sister like this; a sibling dying is one of the hardest deaths for the brain to comprehend. But Machado digs into the actual writings of Lizzie March, Alcott’s real sister who died at twenty-two, and it is gloriously satisfying. Machado writes:
“Reading these letters…I feel a kind of mourning setting in. More than thinking about beautiful, kind, faultless Beth, who chatted endlessly about goodness and piety and nothing at all, I imagine instead this wasted young woman—barely ninety pounds, her hair falling out, so goth she married death itself—calling herself a “little skeleton,” and chuckling at her own dark joke.”
This was the highlight of the collection for me: the story behind the ghost who haunts the pages of Little Women. Through Machado’s research, Lizzie finally gets back a little piece of her real voice after a century and a half of silence. (Plus, Machado sorts all four sisters into their respective Hogwarts houses as a means of discussing literary archetypes – truly excellent content.)
While the other essays were structured as personal reflections, Jane Smiley’s examination of Amy reads more like a critical analysis, which sadly put the brakes on this collection’s warm and confessional mood. The three other authors focused on their connections to Little Women, but Smiley seems removed from the work; there are no memories of her first reading, no revelations about how the novel has resonated in her life. Instead, she works through the novel in chronological order with a thesis in mind: Amy is the misunderstood victim of Little Women, and here’s why. Did Smiley not know what the other authors wrote about, or how they framed their revelations? It feels like this collection needed a (stronger) editor, given the abrupt change of tone in the end.
Smiley only inserts personal commentary to offer, several times, how she would have treated Amy if she were her mother. But even these reproaches don’t land; instead of putting herself in Marmee’s shoes and offering advice that would have made sense in that era, Smiley seems disappointed that Marmee doesn’t employ progressive, 21st century solutions to support a young girl like Amy: an impossible standard to set for an impoverished mother living during the Civil War. For example, Smiley discusses how she would have handled Amy’s fall through the ice, after the girl burns Jo’s manuscript (a moment in literature that I will neither forgive nor forget for the rest of my life):
“If these were my daughters, I would have postponed my conversation with Jo, spent time with Amy, comforting her and watching for evidence of PTSD, brought them together for a conversation about both the burned manuscript and what Jo has done, and then explained very clearly to both of them that they must learn to control their tempers.”
PTSD? Ma’am, this is a Wendy’s the 1860s. It’s a shame the collection ends here.
And now, for my last and gayest complaint:
While I enjoyed March Sisters, the heteronormative undertow bummed me out. I have no one to blame but myself for this; the writers’ experiences with Little Women are their own, and people of all orientations have identified with its characters for generations. But I was hoping for—expecting, even—an essay that celebrated the inherent queerness of both Jo and Alcott, two women who have become lesbian literary icons. I don’t think there is a queer woman alive who reads that first description of Jo and doesn’t see herself, a friend, or a lover in that rough-and-tumble character. We’ve claimed Jo as one of our own, and we won’t hear a word against it; that’s why I wanted to write this review for Autostraddle in the first place!
Several of the essays touch on Alcott’s spinsterhood and the fact that she was bullied into marrying off Jo by an army of her fans: young girls who were thirsty for a big, white, Jo-and-Laurie wedding. There’s even a quote from Little Women in Zhang’s essay about spinsterhood and how these women live their own “tender tragical romances,” but this isn’t explored. Sadly, the closest thing we get to queer content is a footnote about Jo in Carmen Maria Machado’s essay; it’s as if she couldn’t help but slip it in somewhere. Bless her for this, but it wasn’t enough for me. I loved the majority of the essays in this collection, but I found myself wondering if there were any queer women in the room when it came time to decide who should contribute.
March Sisters is a quick read that offers some fresh takes on a beloved literary classic, even if it wasn’t queer enough for this reviewer. If Little Women holds a special place in your heart, it’s worth a look. You’re sure to learn something new while reading this collection: about the characters, the author, the essayists, or yourself.