By Moira Macdonald
The Seattle Times
Those of us who spent most of our childhoods reading in a corner have certain books engraved upon our consciousness; books whose sentences we can finish, whose characters always look exactly like we imagined them, whose stories we never outgrow.
For me, one of those books is Louisa May Alcott’s beloved tale of four sisters growing up in genteel poverty in 1860s New England, “Little Women,” which I read for the first time at age 8 and have since revisited countless times, most recently on a Portland-bound train.
Written on request for a publisher who wanted “a girls’ story,” by an author who’d previously been supporting her family by writing everything from lurid blood-and-thunder magazine stories to an account of her time as a Civil War nurse, “Little Women” is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. (To be precise, the milestone is spread over two years: Part I of “Little Women” was published in 1868; Part II in 1869.)
New books are marking the anniversary: “March Sisters: On Life, Death and Little Wome” has four writers — Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley — musing on the book’s four siblings; “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of ‘Little Women’ and Why It Still Matters.”
But the best way to celebrate the “Little Women” birthday is just to take time by the fetlock, as Amy March would say, and reread it; remembering, as you turn the pages, how its characters’ lives intertwine with your own.
My first “Little Women” reading experience, probably the summer before fourth grade, was my sister’s handsome hardcover copy, which featured 1920s-era color illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith. You still see these illustrations a lot; one of them graces the cover of the Penguin paperback edition that I picked up for the train trip. In it, Meg has a doll-like prettiness, Jo looks engrossed in a book, Beth stands turned so we can’t quite see her face (appropriate for the book’s most opaque character), and Amy’s flowing golden curls look worthy of a movie ingénue.
After my sister and I squabbled one time too many over the book, I saved my allowance and acquired my own copy: an inexpensive, plasticky white hardcover edition, with faintly mod-looking March sisters in line drawings on the front, which I read so many times the binding eventually disintegrated. Later I replaced it with a series of dog-eared secondhand paperbacks, which followed me throughout my adult life; currently I own at least two copies.
Characters in books have a way of holding still while we revolve around them; seeing the sun hitting them from different angles, changing our view of them. The characters jump off the page, particularly the four March girls — who were famously based on Alcott’s own family life.
This I know for sure: I still put the novel down with a warm, familial feeling inside of me that few books seem to kindle.