In the past few weeks, I've been reading Louisa May Alcott's March family trilogy, rereading "Little Women" and "Little Men" for the first time in maybe a decade and reading the conclusion, "Jo's Boys", for the first time ever.
Since the first book is set in the Civil War - era US (is that an oxymoron?), some of the March family's ideas about woman- and manliness don't stand the test of time, and the overt moralizing might not sit well with many readers today. But, I found the overall story of the characters sincerely striving to improve themselves — even when faced with their own ordinariness — a comfort, especially when I found myself alone.
If you're familiar with the story, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that, as a teenager, I most identified with Jo March, the tomboy and wannabe novelist turned successful author and mother of many. Revisiting her story allowed me to see how much I've changed since I first wished for a writer's garret of my own. I now understand why she and her best friend Laurie/Teddy didn't and couldn't end up together. I also now understand her decision to stop writing when she did, and I felt prodded when she started again, later in the trilogy.
One lesson that went sailing over my head when I was a teenager was the one Amy learned during her tour of Europe: "Talent is not genius." As someone with a big writer's ego and fantasies of literary stardom, I considered it a lack of willpower on Amy's part when she came to this conclusion and scaled back her artistic ambitions. Today, I want to congratulate her for being an artist and an accomplished woman, even if she isn't the best.
The bigger thing I've taken away from the March books is the idea of endurance and self-control. Most of the characters, at some point, are encouraged to tame their personal demons and strive to be their best despite the circumstances — when loved ones are feared dead, when failing or having failed, when alone, when doubted and shunned by all one's friends, and so on. In their struggles to become better people, they receive kind words from others who have lived through the same or worse; Jo hears from Marmee, many times, and later, Jo's boys hear from Jo.
With Cris far away, I found Jo's words to the boys, all grown up now and about to ship out, the most comforting. I happened to read them the first morning I had breakfast alone and he'd gone, and I felt as though they'd been written for me. It's not an easy thing, to suppress a pained whimper over toast and eggs in the middle of Canteen 11.
To Nat, the young violinist about to leave for studies in Germany, she says:
"I'll tell you what I should do. I'd say to myself:
"'I'll prove that my love is strong and faithful, and make Daisy's mother proud to give her to me by being not only a good musician but an excellent man, and so command respect and confidence. This I will try for; and if I fail, I shall be the better for the effort, and find comfort in the thought that I did my best for her sake.'"
To Emil, the young sailor who has just been promoted:
"I read somewhere that every inch of rope used in the British Navy has a strand of red in it, so that wherever a bit of it is found it is known. That is the text of my little sermon to you. Virtue, which means honour, honesty, courage, and all that makes character, is the red thread that marks a good man wherever he is."
While Jo's roles in the second and third books are mostly behind the scenes, and while her life does not turn out as she'd dreamed in girlhood, it is nice to see that her character remains like the red thread. Jo grows older, wiser, and differently, but somehow, she is still undeniably the Jo March we first meet in the first book, lying on the rug, pining after a new book, and wanting to run with the boys.
It's something I hope my loved ones will see when they see me again. I know that being here, away from them all, is going to change me, but I hope the red thread of my own character will prove true, so that wherever and whenever I am found again, I'll be known.