I went to a memorial service for my Uncle Joe on Saturday—and I took the copy of Little Women that he gave me for Christmas in 1956 so that when it was my turn to say something about him I would have it with me. I was nine years old, in the fourth grade when I received this gift. I didn’t own many books during my childhood, and just holding the beautiful book in my hand thrilled me. It was mine.
I have no idea how many times I read it. Many. Of course, my favorite character was the writer, Jo. She was a tomboy, she strode. She was always writing plays and putting on fabulous theatrical productions. She was loyal and passionate. She was impetuous, outspoken. She had a lot of trouble being good.
It was a hard time in my life. We had moved that summer from our neighborhood in the city to one of those awful subdivisions that sprang up in the Fifties. The houses all looked the same, the people were all the same, and it was so far out in the boondocks that I couldn’t ride my bike to the library any more. Worse, I had to change schools. At my old school, I was a star. But at my new school I was just one more kid from the subdivision that had generated such an influx of new students they had to divide the cafeteria and gym into makeshift classrooms. The stars of class had been established long ago—including a girl who was not only the smartest person in the class, but played the piano, had perfect banana curls, and lived in a nice white-frame house with green shutters right next door to the school.
Things weren’t so great at home, either. I wouldn’t understand until later that my dad had a chronic drinking problem and, with the move from the old neighborhood, it had begun to worsen.
Wherever I was felt like the wrong place. So I lived in books when I could—and now I had this wonderful book of my very own that I would never, ever have to take back to the library.
I loved the March family. The four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—who loved each other fiercely and whose squabbles and disagreements were always mended with tears and laughter. Their mother, Marmee, who knew them all so well and guided them gently, but firmly toward the right path. Their father, off fighting in the Civil War, but ever-present in their thoughts and deeds.
If only I could be in that family, I thought. And I was, when I was reading. The book was my prized possession; now I keep it on the bookshelf behind my desk, along with my published books.
The book shaped me in so many ways—some, I realize now, turned out to be a little problematical. There’s an echo of it in my annual Christmas malaise: shouldn’t I be wrapping up my special breakfast and carrying it to the closest poor person I can find? Shouldn’t I be telling people not to buy me presents, to use the money to buy presents for poor people instead? (Actually, I wish I could do that.) And if, by chance, I receive a present I don’t like, shouldn’t I be happy with it, anyway—like the March sisters were with their copies of Pilgrim’s Progress?
It’s in the little voice in my head that tells me that I should always, always think of others before myself. Morbid little child that I was, my favorite part of the book was Beth’s death; in fact, the book opens naturally right to it. I read it again and again, thinking about how people would appreciate me (finally) if I died—though the realization that I would be there to revel in it did take a bit of the pleasure away. I read the chapter when my own sister, Jackie, died in 2003, thinking it might give me some comfort, but I was shocked to read what Beth says to Jo just before she dies. “You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to father and mother when I’m gone. They will turn to you, don’t fail them; and if it’s hard to work alone, remember that I don’t forget you, and that you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world…”
Holy cow, I thought. There’s the source of that damn voice saying, “You shouldn’t be so selfish” every time I do something completely for myself.
My love affair with Italy, for example.
It took me a while, but I know better than to listen to it.
And any of the difficulties my obsession with Little Women may have caused me were well worth it, because the great gift the book gave me was my first real glimpse of a writer’s life--and the absolute conviction that it was what I wanted my life to be.
I don’t know if the books I’ve written are splendid, but I’ve sure had a splendid time writing them. (Well, when they weren’t making me crazy.) I’ve seen a whole lot of the world that I dreamed of seeing, just as Jo did.
Little Women, the book my Uncle Joe gave me for my ninth Christmas, set me on that path, and I am forever grateful for that. I'm glad I told him so, more than once, over the years.
May he rest in peace.