Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Little Men," by Louisa May Alcott

Yeah, sequels are rarely as good as the original story.

I could pretty much end my review of Little Men (the sequel to the classic Little Women) right there, but despite the fact that Little Men is nowhere near as interesting or well-written as the book that came before it, it is still a remarkably interesting book for its time.

Little Men chronicles the adventures of one year at Plumfield Academy, the school Jo and her husband Professor Bhaer founded at the end of Little Women. You'd think this would be interesting, and it sort of is, and it sort of isn't.

Plumfield is home to 14 students, plus Jo's sons Rob and Teddy (yes, his name is Teddy Bhaer). Four are the main(ish) characters - Nat, former urchin and violin prodigy; Demi, Meg and John's bookworm son; Tommy, the rascally troublemaker; and Dan - the bad boy street kid with a dark past. Yes, ladies, we have been mooning over angsty brooders for more than a century.

Five of the other boys are vague characters who mainly serve as comic relief or mild antagonists (Jack, Stuffy, Franz, Emil, Ned). Three are the token "special" kids (Dick has a crooked back, Dolly has a stutter, and Billy is mentally disabled) who are mentioned very rarely and never without some combination of the adjectives "poor," "feeble," and "valiant."

Strangely enough, the "quadroon" student Jo and Fritz boasted of so smugly at the end of Little Women is nowhere to be found. Suspicious, that.

Lastly, two of the students are girls - Daisy, Demi's twin sister, and "Naughty Nan," who is AWESOME. More on that later.

The main reason this book didn't work for me was the youth of the characters. While the main children are comparable in age to the March sisters at the start of Little Women, they act much younger. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they reside in a school environment where they are constantly reminded that they're children, while the March sisters had to grow up rather fast to survive while their father was away.

Alcott also wastes an awful lot of scenes chronicling the cutesy fan-servicey adventures of the March sisters' children, most of whom are under the age of 5. Lots of tears, chubby fists, and baby talk. Imagine reading a Facebook friend's posts about their two-year-old, only instead of a post, it's like 40% of a novel. So most of the episodes read as very childish.

Little Men, as a whole, feels strangely directionless. It's "a year in the life," separated into little episodes and vignettes, with no real goal or point. The closest the novel comes to an arc is the Bhaers' attempt to tame Dan - a defiant and obviously troubled boy who wants help as much as he fears to ask for it. The Bhaer's conflicting hopes and fears for Dan (hope that he might be brought around, fear that his violence might affect the other children) are powerful, as is Dan's slowly unfolding trust for them. It's the strongest subplot in the novel, and I honestly wish we had more of it.

On the positive side, Plumfield gives Alcott an excuse to rhapsodize at length about how best to educate boys and girls, and her ideas (considering her time period) are bold, progressive, and feminist. For instance, a huge emphasis is placed on individual study - some kids learn at different paces, and that's okay! Rote memorization will not help a young, eager brain to learn (rather laughably, mentally handicapped Billy's backstory is that he literally studied so hard his brain gave out). As well, Alcott preaches a balance between book learning and practical, hands-on knowledge (the boys are encouraged to explore and collect their frogs and snails and puppy dog's tails).

Even better, Jo decides to make Plumfield co-ed by inviting local girl "Naughty Nan" to board with them and study with Daisy (who's at Plumfield to be close to her brother). Jo theorizes that having boys learn alongside girls will encourage them to moderate their behaviour and respect women more. FANCY THAT.

Alcott also demonstrates many feminist themes in her treatment of Daisy and Nan. Daisy fits the more conventional model of Victorian femininity - she's gentle and sweet, loves to cook and clean and pretends to mother her dolls. Nan is the wild child - running and racing and challenging the boys, voraciously interested in science and the outdoors. Neither child is shamed or depicted as the "bad one" for what they want out of life. Nan is "naughty" because of her behaviour, not because of her desires.

Oh, and did I mention? Jo sees Nan's interest in science, biology, and medicinal herbs and encourages her to study to be a DOCTOR. IN 1871 NEW ENGLAND. Because JO MARCH-BHAER IS AWESOME. I just about flew up out of my chair reading that part.

So while Little Men doesn't tell as interesting of a story as Little Women did, it's still a fascinating look into the mind of a 19th century feminist and her idea of what the ideal school would be like. While some of her ideas and themes are problematic when seen in a modern context (especially her depiction of disabled people), the amount of stuff she got right is still encouraging.