I have been lonesome lately, without entirely realizing it at first, for my dear old nineteenth century fiction. I took something of a break from it after college because I was finally able to read other neglected categories, including many new publications. Years later now, I've found something missing. I've been feeling like it's time for another reread of Jane Eyre, which I've been reading about every four years for a while now (and I'm getting overdue for the next reread). And reading Ruth Goodman's How to Be a Victorian (which is a wonderful non-fiction book that I'll post about after I've finished it) has made me think anew of all the little nineteenth century cultural things that I learned from growing up on Victorian fiction.
Suddenly I had a strong desire to reread Louisa May Alcott's Little Men (the sequel to Little Women). Little Women with Winona Ryder was a familiar movie when I was in fifth grade, and I read its book in sixth grade, which launched the reading of as many of her books as I could get my hands on (I remember going to the bookstore to inquire after Under the Lilacs and another title and being disappointed that the stock was just Little Women and Little Women and Little Women, so to this day I still have not read Under the Lilacs). Little Women I did reread quite a bit for the simple fact that (along with the Little House on the Prairie series, Anne of Green Gables, and Black Beauty) I owned it. Little Men I read from the school library (one of the many books that I checked out there that had sadly hardly been read by anyone else). Its sequel, Jo's Boys, I ended up reading online. This was a novelty: having a computer at home was a new thing, as was this exciting concept of free books to read online (I don't think I even knew the phrase "public domain" yet, though I think I understood the gist of it since it was plain to see that only the dear old "classics" were available to read in this way).
Fortunately I once picked up a set of vintage Louisa May Alcott books at an antique store, so when the aforementioned desire for a reread came up, I had the books on hand (I don't read online anymore--it just doesn't suit me). As soon as I started, I knew I would have to read both books because my mind was starting to recall all the little scenes more quickly than I could read them all.
Both these books are quite sappy, possibly even more so than Little Women. And yet the fact that they contain generally realistic sappiness makes said sappiness endearing and the images of each scene permanent in the mind. Especially since I read these stories at that age where memory is . . . strong and seems to recall every detail, rereading them transported me back.
Little Men is a good book, I was almost surprised to find. I guess after reading the Eight Cousins duo, my interest in Alcott started to wane (Eight Cousins was generally good, but since its sequel, Rose in Bloom, seemed to consist mainly of Rose proceeding to date all of her cousins one by one, it got to be a bit much for a modern perspective). But she did have a particular power of storytelling. She could paint a picture of a family community and all of the various members therein and she could strike right in at the stories that we would most want to hear, the stories of happiness, sorrow, and humor. And she gives everything a good moral angle, which is very similar to that of the Little House TV series (the books were too straightforward to include this sappily heartwarming and yet also quite stark morality).
By the time you get to Jo's Boys, all thoughts of quality fade because you're simply invested in seeing the last scenes with these characters. Little Women, you'll recall, is in two parts; while they're published together now, it used to be that the second part was separate and titled Good Wives. So the style with Little Men and Jo's Boys is similar to that of Little Women and Good Wives, except that ten years pass in between instead of just four and there are more characters.
I always quite liked Nat: that opening scene where he walks in to find such a welcome at Plumfield won me over right away. This time I was amused to see that Jo really doesn't like Nat that much; I didn't remember that from before. And Dan didn't seem quite as "bad" as I remembered, and in fact I did find him one of the more interesting characters this time. He's almost the heart of the story, the boy that Jo truly did need to rescue--personally. Nat would've just ended up in the street, dead physically, but Dan would have died spiritually if not for Jo's help.
You see, the thing about reading these stories now versus at eleven years old is that now I'm looking at them with the same sense with which they were written, which is very much a nostalgic style. At eleven years old, you can't have nostalgia for being eleven. But when you go back later, then you see it.
There was a time when I decided that Louisa May Alcott's books sat with a certain simplicity that made them less noteworthy, though casually enjoyable. Now I see so much more in them, and realize that the "simplicity" is entirely intentional. She was an intelligent, thinking woman, and it shows. While we, as modern readers, are apt to point out what we consider "outdated" elements, there are actually quite few of these considering how long ago she was writing--and even some bits, on further reflection, aren't as out of date as they at first seem. (I don't really have enough space in this post to give examples of what I mean.) There is much to learn from the morality of the Little Women/Little Men set, and it's all told in such a straightforward way.
I always believed that it was important to know your own mind and make your own decisions about who you want to be and what standard you want to hold yourself to (this is why some people falter when they go off to college: they haven't learned to stand on their own two feet--if you learn this, then you can stand in absolutely any environment). And I see now that Louisa May Alcott was one of the sources that taught me this. So my nostalgia to see the old crew again led me back up to the present, showing me lessons I could still learn or things I could keep working at, things that never go away.
It's been an interesting reading trip, and now I find myself utterly charmed by this group of characters.