Susan Bailey's Reviews > Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Rioux
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it was amazing
bookshelves: to-read

Most important work on Little Women in years - for the fan as well as the scholar

Disclaimer: I was sent an advance copy by the publisher to review.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of a classic read by millions around the globe. Written by Louisa May Alcott, a writer under duress fulfilling the assignment of an insistent publisher, Little Women, in the words of Anne Boyd Rioux is the “paradigmatic book about growing up, especially for the female half of the population.” Her latest book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, tells the story of Alcott’s enduring work as well as its impact on the lives of millions of readers.After reading Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy I better understand the genius of Little Women: why it has resonated with so many readers, and why it still remains relevant today.

Rioux, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans is that rare academic who can combine meticulous research with a writing style that appeals to a broad range of readers. The work is succinct and appealing, providing more than enough information to satisfy the scholar while engaging the mainstream reader. I was delighted with Rioux’s many sharp and surprising insights not only about Little Women, but of the Alcott family as well. She brings fresh ideas to Alcott scholarship.

In the introduction Rioux writes, “What seems like a tale from a simpler time turns out to be the product of a difficult and sometimes troubled life.” While providing the customary biographical information for each family member, Rioux provided fresh insight on familiar themes.

Rioux’s analysis of the anger issues presented in Little Women is spot-on, linking it to the difficult life led by Abigail Alcott as she coped with the dire consequences of a husband who would not, or could not, support his family. She cites Marmee’s confession to Jo about controlling her anger as packing in “the years of extreme poverty the Alcotts endured and the anger Abigail felt about it.” Abigail’s anger was absorbed by Louisa who was, in Rioux’s words, “deeply marked by these early experiences of poverty, family instability, and worry for her father’s sanity.” She writes that Abigail was particularly resentful of Bronson’s inability to recognize the many sacrifices she made to do the work he refused to do. As a result, Louisa made it her life’s mission to right that wrong and provide for her mother. This is reflected in Jo’s inheritance of Beth’s role as the family caretaker after Beth dies.

There is far more to Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy than biographical information. As it is impossible in this review to get into that kind of detail with which I would like to indulge as it would constitute a novella, I will instead offer a summary of the other aspects of this book and hope that these few details I have offered will encourage you to read this ground-breaking work.

Rioux presents a chapter on how Little Women was received. I have often longed to experience Little Women as did readers in 1868 (the closest approximation being the Harry Potter phenomenon with my teenage children). Rioux’s explanations and insights have deepened my understanding of the originality and genius of Alcott’s book. Those aspects of Little Women that are normal and accepted ways of living for today’s readers were considered radical in Louisa’s era; Rioux got that sense across to me such that I could appreciate it for the first time.

Rioux’s analysis of the numerous theatrical, film and musical adaptations takes into account the historical background of the period when they were produced, demonstrating its influence how Little Women was interpreted and presented. Two compelling examples were how the Great Depression influenced the 1933 Katherine Hepburn version, and how aftermath of World War II affected the 1949 June Allyson movie.

A chapter is devoted to the many prominent women writers, leaders and politicians influenced by Little Women. Rioux points out the common experience of all these women in recognizing themselves in Jo March, thus drawing inspiration from her experience. Jo became a guide, a means by which a reader could say, “That is me, and I can do what Jo has done.” One of the most important legacies of Little Women is the sheer number of women who have gone on to greatness because of Jo March.

The second half of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy draws upon Rioux’s experience as a college professor teaching Little Women in her classes. Her interaction with students provides valuable information on how young people today perceive the classic. An entire chapter is devoted to the question of boys reading the book which is quite fascinating and timely.

Rioux also provides a chapter on how the reading of Little Women varies so much from person to person revealing again the genius and complexity of the story, hidden behind a seemingly simple telling of four sisters growing up.
The final chapter recounts present-day books, television shows and movies influenced by Little Women including the long-running “Gilmore Girls” and the character of Rory, and Hermione from the Harry Potter series.

I highly recommend the reading of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy. Read it first for pleasure and then go back a second time and study it with care. Anne Boyd Rioux has captured the genius of Alcott’s classic, demonstrating without question why Little Women still matters.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 28, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
November 28, 2017 – Shelved

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