20/06/2018

Jo's Boys (by Louisa M Alcott)

One of the authors whose works I’m re-reading, every couple of months, is Louisa M Alcott. She is probably best known for the classic ‘Little Women’, which introduces us to the March family. I have read that book many times, and its sequel ‘Good Wives’. I’m not quite so keen on the two later books in the series, but I re-read ‘Little Men’ a couple of months ago, so decided it was time to read the final book of the four, ‘Jo’s Boys’.

My copy is a hardback children’s edition published by Bancroft, which states on the front page that it is abridged. Since I also have a Kindle version of all the author’s works, I spent some time comparing the two. I quickly realised that two entire chapters are missing from the abridged edition. So although I mainly read the hardback, I went to my Kindle for the two missing chapters. There are a few odd paragraphs missing as well.

The story takes place about ten years after the events of ‘Little Men’. Jo Bhaer must be in her late thirties, and Meg Brooke perhaps forty. They both seem to consider themselves quite elderly, although Jo is still full of energy. Meg now lives in a cottage built in the grounds of Jo’s home Plumfield, and there is also a university, built by a legacy from Laurie’s uncle. Laurie and Amy also live in the grounds, in a large and elegant house called Parnassus.

There’s much coming and going between all the families, and the book mostly follows the lives of the boys who were featured in ‘Little Men’, now mostly grown up. A couple have died, some are off at another university, and some have stayed around. Demi has become a journalist, Nat sets off to be a musician, Dan has been travelling in the West, and Tom nurses an unrequited passion for the doctor Nan. Emil has been at sea, and Franz is succeeding in business.

The book is really a series of anecdotes, each chapter following either life in the Plumfield environment, or seeing what one of the ‘boys’ has been doing. There’s a poignant chapter about Emil at sea, for instance; a dramatic one about Dan getting into trouble; one observing Nat, learning to deal with his pride as he studies in Germany.

Inevitably the style is dated, and the values of the era come through (it was first published in 1886). The writing is good, the conversations believable, if a bit over pious and moralising in places. The affection between the characters - particularly Jo and her ‘boys’ - comes through in a way that is timeless, and I was surprised at how poignant some of the scenes were.

Anyone with feminist tendencies might be horrified at some of the attitudes shown. It’s taken for granted, for instance, that girls are to be protected, and that they have smaller brains than boys. Yet Alcott was ahead of her time; the Plumfield university takes young women as well as men, and all the girls are encouraged to follow careers. Mention is made of some of the early women pioneers, and one of the strong young women in the book gives a rousing speech described in a couple of paragraphs which are also cut from the abridged version.

The two chapters removed from the abridged version don’t really add anything much to the book. One is a series of conversations next to a tennis court, involving two of the young men who went to study at a different university and see themselves as men of the world. It’s perhaps more preachy than other parts of the book, but also shows the author’s positive attitudes to early feminism. The second missing chapter is about the girls rather than the boys and acknowledges itself as a sideline to the main focus of the book.

I don’t know why I like these books so much, or why some parts are so moving, but I enjoyed this very much. I had remembered one or two passages, and the general themes, but had forgotten a lot of detail since I last read it almost seventeen years ago. The final chapter draws everything together, giving a brief description of all the main characters and what happens to them, and - as its title makes clear - draws the curtain for the last time on the March family.

I would definitely recommend this to adults or teenagers (or older children who like this style) if if you have read the earlier books in the series, particularly ‘Little Men’. It wouldn’t work as an introduction to this author, however: it would be very confusing to anyone who had not met most of the characters in the previous volume.

As with the other books in this series, there are many printed editions available; it's worth making sure you have a full version if possible. You can also find it inexpensively or free in electronic form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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