Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” has been a touchstone for female readers since its publication in two parts in 1868 and 1869. In honor of the 150th anniversary of its publication, the Library of America asked four writers to each consider one of the quartet of sisters whose stories form the backbone of the novel.

“Little Women” has not only had incredible enduring appeal as a novel, but it has yielded multiple screen versions, the latest due in December from Greta Gerwig, starring Emma Watson as Meg and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

Most readers, myself included, have identified with the tomboyish Jo. In rereading the classic, I was struck not only by her plucky independence, but also by her gender fluidity. “What a good fellow you are, Jo!” proclaims boy-next-door Laurie. And Jo herself: “But if anything is amiss at home, I’m your man.”

Reading the 19th-century novel through a contemporary lens, writers Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley have, in “March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women,” produced essays that are fresh, layered and insightful.

Kate Bolick’s take on oldest March sister Meg, “Meg’s Frock Shock,” is propelled by a strong personal narrative. She compares Meg’s experience at the Moffat fête to her own experience at a party given by her boss at a slick magazine. Raised 45 miles north of the Alcott home in Concord, Mass., by a second-wave feminist who eschewed makeup and fashion, Bolick was taught to favor plain over pretty. She wears borrowed threads — a slinky black dress with a plunging neckline — to the party. Her date smirks that she has taken “ ‘cocktail attire’ to the next level,” just like Laurie excoriates Meg when she is dressed by the Moffats to be “a little beauty.” Bolick writes a multifaceted consideration of “plain vs. pretty” as an outdated binary.

Jane Smiley considers youngest sister Amy to be most in keeping with present-day attitudes, calling her a “thoughtful feminist” who grows the most in the novel. Smiley also recognizes the progressive child-rearing attitudes of Marmee, who uses “kind persuasion rather than force,” a departure from the routine corporal punishment of children in the 19th century.

Carmen Maria Machado places the sickly Beth, based on Lizzie Alcott, within the context of the contemporary “sick-lit” subgenre she devoured during a girlhood plagued by abdominal issues. In a footnote she happily observes Jo’s gender-bending.

Jenny Zhang is tasked with analyzing the ever-popular Jo. She disliked Jo when reading “Little Women” as a girl, under-identifying with her then, and over-identifies with her now, making for an interesting essay that sags a little under her reactivity.

With that one misstep, the March sisters march on in this stimulating, discerning and engaging book.

 

Jeffrey Ann Goudie’s reviews have appeared in the Kansas City Star, the Women’s Review of Books, the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women
By: Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado and Jane Smiley.
Publisher: Library of America, 182 pages, $21.95.