Life Lessons from Louisa: Little Women by Colette Marie Bennett

Louisa May Alcott’s seminal work Little Woman is on the recommended list of “Texts Illustrating the Complexity, Quality, & Range of Student Reading 6-8 for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)-English Language Arts.”

My teacher brain considers the academic value this book has in vocabulary and style and determines this classic novel is worthy of a recommendation.  My teacher brain appreciates the novel’s setting and  educational connections to the 150 Anniversary of the Civil War.

However, my reader’s brain harkens back to its juvenile beginnings and screams loudly, “Oh, please. Oh, please, don’t teach Little Woman!”  According to my 11-year-old self, “You will ruin this book!”

Louisa May Alcott’s engaging story centers on the travails of four sisters and their beloved Marmee struggling with financial hardships, illness, romance, and death. This novel was, and still is, my first literary love. My copy was a Christmas gift when I was 10 years old, the Deluxe Illustrated Edition,-January 28, 1947, Penguin Group – with Louis Jambor illustrations. I loved the pen and ink drawings that accompanied many of the chapters, but the cover was my favorite. This painting shows all the girls singing around the little spinet that Marmee plays. Jo stands behind Marmee, while Amy and Beth sing opposite her with Meg’s back to the viewer.

Like most readers, I empathized with the unladylike and plain-spoken Jo, Louisa May Alcott’s alter ego.  Like Jo, I, too, wanted to be a writer. I imagined the dusty attic garret and a chest filled with dog-eared stories and dramatic props while I sat in the 1960 pink-flowered wallpapered bedroom of my colonial styled home. I read and re-read, switching the routines of my own household in 1960s Westchester County for the routines of the 1860s in a small cottage in Massachusetts.  I imagined my own flirtation with a dashingly handsome neighborhood Laurie, and I imagined my conversation with the handsome dark stranger, Mr. Bhaer. “Heart’s dearest, why do you cry?” he would say, and after I raised my tearful face to him, we would kiss under the large umbrella in the rain.  Heck, I even had Jo’s long chestnut hair.

Louisa (I could never refer to her as Alcott!) introduced me to characters who lived lives of exemplary virtues.  There was charity as in Chapter 2 when Marmee challenged her daughters,

“Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?”

The telegram that arrives with the news of Mr. March’s illness in Chapter 15 is accompanied by the paragraph,

“How still the room was as they listened breathlessly, how strangely the day darkened outside, and how suddenly the whole world seemed to change, as the girls gathered about their mother, feeling as if all the happiness and support of their lives was about to be taken from them.”

How universal is that moment for all readers when their world also could change on a piece of terrible news? Louisa captured that moment and then provided an insight into Marmee’s strength and how she would unite the family through this crisis as well,

“Mrs. March was herself again directly, read the message over, and stretched out her arms to her daughters, saying, in a tone they never forgot, ‘I shall go at once, but it may be too late. Oh, children, children, help me to bear it!’”

Forgiveness was the theme in Chapter 8 after Amy, sullen and headstrong after destroying several of Jo’s stories, was rescued from a skating accident on a frozen lake. Jo was so relieved that her sister was safe that, “Neither said a word, but they hugged one another close, in spite of the blankets, and everything was forgiven and forgotten in one hearty kiss.”

Finally, Louisa taught me to accept death. I remember the unflinching honesty with which she communicated the death of gentle Beth when, “Mother and sisters made her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again.”

I had never lost a character that I cared about in a novel; when I lost Beth, I felt as though I had lost a dear friend. Louisa was more than a writer. Even though 124 years separated us, she, through Little Women, taught me about life; she was my mentor.

Now, I am a little suspicious that the CCSS recommendation of this text for grade 8 students satisfies two criteria: a 19th Century female author and accessibility to a text in the public domain (e-text). But perhaps my suspicions are unwarranted, and there is a genuine interest in recommending Little Women. However, while I want students to experience Little Women, I would prefer for them to discover Louisa the way that I discovered her, as an independent reader. I shudder to think a student will be forced to read the novel rather than discover this story, and, although I am not gender-biased with literature, I would not assign this novel to low-reading level, pre-teen boys.  Moreover, I still cannot imagine how I would “teach” the book as a whole class novel. Could I do lessons looking for rising action, conflicts, literary devices, and vocabulary?

To reconcile my teacher’s brain with my 11-year-old reader’s brain, I have copies for students to select individually or in small groups. If a student should ask for a recommendation for a great book, I might suggest Little Women, and for the curious student who lingers over the text, I will tease her with its wonderful “hook,” the story’s opening line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” I know that despite CCSS recommendation, Little Women does not need me in order to be taught; Louisa does all the teaching herself.

Colette Marie Bennett is the English/Social Studies Dept Chair Regional District #6 in CT with 20 years teaching experience in grades 6-12. She blogs about increasing classroom libraries, literacy ,and education at  Tweets as @Teachcmb56