Big dreams for "Little Women"

Louisa May Alcott closed a gap for me when I was a bookless country girl; now I find myself trying to close a gap for her.

Published April 5, 1999 10:04PM (EDT)

Louisa May Alcott, author of "Little Women," was the only female face in the Authors card game. Her countenance is a cameo carved on my brain during childhood -- the soft shape of her profile, the crimped hair bundled at the back of her head, the lace tucker at her neck that suggested she was wearing one of those voluminous 19th century tent dresses women trundled around in.

Let's begin with the dress. Louisa May Alcott claimed she had a boy's spirit under her "bib and tucker." In "Little Women," Jo March, at odds with her feminine costume, burns out the backside of her dress by standing too close to the fire. At a party she has to hide the "bad breadth" of material in the dress by keeping her back to the wall.

When I was in grade school and profoundly involved in Alcott's novel, I wore plaid, long-sleeved dresses with gathered skirts. In the winter, to keep my legs warm, I wore blue jeans beneath this modified version of old-fashioned girls' garb. I was a country girl, in Kentucky, attending a rural school, where there was no library except one bookcase for the high school. My reading was limited to the popular series books -- Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton -- books my mother bought for me at the wallpaper store, which had a small book nook. I read them over and over, for there was nothing else to read. I knew the faces of the authors in the card game -- Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Twain and others -- but I did not know their works.

In the summer of my 10th year, when my mother was working at a clothing factory, she sent me to the Clubhouse, a day-care center for the factory children. Next door was the factory library -- an enchanting little white house full of dusty discards from the state library system. The books were old and brittle, with an occasional book mite scurrying across an exposed page. The musty smell of the place made me giddy. It was the first library I had ever seen.

On a dark shelf in the shadows, I found "Little Women." I plunged into Alcott's story of the four March sisters -- Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy. This portrait of family life in New England in the Civil War era was strange and inviting, with quaint words I didn't understand -- lots of Latin and Greek mythology -- and mysterious home remedies like arnica and blancmange. I was thrilled to read a book in which girls acted out "Pilgrim's Progress," and had bonbons and mottoes with tea, and played a game called Buzz. The characters even play a game of Authors. Amy's pickled limes -- contraband hidden in her school desk -- were so appealing and succulent I could almost taste them. I still haven't had any pickled limes, but they reside perfectly in my imagination.

Beth's death weighed on me like a personal loss. Beth was a sickly child, and I had been sick with pneumonia every year. Her demise was furtive, never spelled out. She spoke sweetly of heaven and seemed to vanish like a Cheshire cat. I cherished the absurd hope that maybe she didn't die. That year, I saw a movie of the book -- the one with June Allyson as Jo and Margaret O'Brien as Beth -- and it made Beth's death somewhat starker. I was suffused with grief. The brilliant autumn leaves that blaze across the screen after Beth dies burned into my heart.

When Jo publishes her book, "My Beth," the crimson-and-gold cover seems to scream out the loss of Beth. I was flooded with the rich images of this moment for months. The movie was about the creation of a book, I thought. Writing a book was a way to utilize sorrow. Jo was always scribbling. I was determined to be like Jo, who went to New York to seek her fortune as a writer. I began writing little Nancy Drew-like stories in blue Double Q notebooks.

"Little Women" is a warm, lovely book. It still compels me, an adult reader looking back at my childhood influences. But I'd urge the skeptical new reader to dismiss all its sentimental and foolish moralizing as mere conventions of the time -- just historical baggage, like the unwieldy feminine fashions of the day -- because Alcott's characterization, wit, lively dialogue and vigorous writing transcend those failings. One loves the book mostly for Josephine March, not for the moral lessons the little women learn. It is Jo who carries the book. Jo is a bookworm who uses slang, whistles and wants to go to war. Jo hides in her garret, eating apples and reading a book, with a pet rat called Scrabble. (I loved the word "garret.") Jo declares, "I like good strong words, that mean something." She's always saying, "Christopher Columbus!" or "Fiddlesticks!" Jo is vivacious and likes to dance -- "Jo, being full of swing and spring." She writes plays for her sisters to perform: Roderigo in his russet boots and red cloak, strumming a guitar. A hundred thirty years later, young girls are still idolizing guys with guitars. Louisa May Alcott had her finger on the pulse.

I transferred my admiration from Jo to Louisa May Alcott herself, for she was the writer who had imagined a girl writer. And she was Jo, I felt sure. She was the first writer who became real to me -- a woman famous enough to get into the Authors card game! I answered an ad in the back of a magazine. The Famous Writers School sent me its aptitude test, then a barrage of offers for writing lessons, costing giant sums of money. After receiving several letters, I had to write the Famous Writers School that I didn't have money for lessons -- I was only 11 years old.

After college I went to New York to be a writer, just as Jo March had, and as Louisa May Alcott once had.

By Bobbie Ann Mason

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