Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Reviews: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys

     I am uncomfortable with the idea of J.K. Rowling continuing to write Harry Potter material. The Little Women trilogy is the reason this makes me uncomfortable. Let’s face it, authors get burnt out on the same thing after a while. Doyle got fed up with Sherlock and tried to kill him off (fanrage ensued), George R.R. Martin threatened to kill off more Starks if the fans kept on asking when his next book was, and Alcott’s books slowly descended into boredom as she got tired of her characters. It happens.

     I liked the first book. Little Women was a gentle, comfortable read that got me through a very bad time. It’s filled with morals without sounding moralizing, and gives us colorful characters that are sympathetic while all being very different. Alcott, from personal experience, knew how different people interacted. Seeing the sisters’ way of dealing with each other, guided by their wise mother (and later, father when he returns from the war) was a very realistic look at sibling relationships. They squabble and fight yet stand strong together when tragedy ensues.

     Let’s get a few issues out of the way. First off, it’s annoying to hear people complain about Beth being boring, in the same way I get annoyed when someone whines about Fanny Price. Not every single character is going to be loud and attention-catching, because not everyone is like that in real life. However, that’s not a huge deal.

     The big issue here is this: Jo and Laurie have no chemistry together and if I hear another shipper complaining about the book I will throw something at them. (I don’t care if they’re on the Internet; I’ll figure it out). All of their interactions were chumminess on Jo’s side and a desire to be “mothered” on Laurie’s side. Laurie was finally ready for a relationship when he stopped expecting to be cooed and petted whenever he was in a bad mood and focused on helping Amy with her grief. Until then, Laurie was still a spoiled little boy. (Similarly, Amy had some growing up to do. Basically, they worked because they were both spoiled children who learned they weren’t special snowflakes.)

     I don’t think, however, that Jo and Mr. Bhaer were any better suited. He’s meant to be a mentor figure, but it felt more like he spent his spare time lecturing her about things rather than engaging her in dialogue. It was especially egregious when he chided her about her sensationalist novels since Alcott loved writing those. This doesn’t seem to change much in the later books, despite the stories’ assertions to the contrary.

     Either way, the first book was pleasant and fun, and I would definitely re-read it.

     Now, let’s continue with Little Men. Unfortunately, this one felt a little more moralizing. Not to the point of being intolerable, but still a bit more. Alcott knew how to write boys, however, and seeing the hijinks a large group of normal kids get up to was amusing. I felt like Jo was rather diminished in this one. She was mainly a worried mother, although occasionally you get glimpses of what she was like in the first book. Mr. Bhaer wasn’t bad, but he still liked delivering lectures. I enjoyed seeing Nat accustom himself to kindness and helpfulness; but it was Dan who stole the show.

     I have to admit, the book showed a better understanding of the psychology behind people’s environment and childhood than was generally shown in that time period. Alcott acknowledges that Dan has good tendencies that have been swallowed up by his rough background, and also acknowledges that one’s background can be very hard to shake off. Dan shows a strong desire to be better but also chafes against restraint because he has not been taught any. (It sounds like a friend of mine, actually.) Seeing his struggles was more engaging than the rest of the book put together.

     Then Jo’s Boys happened, and everything was broken. I mean, some of it was good. Seeing how these kids started growing up was truly interesting, but Alcott got so moralizing that I suspect she was deliberately punishing the editor that kept bothering her to write another book. Nan’s story was quite interesting, and I feel like it’s what Alcott wanted to do with Jo. Nan never marries and never shows any interest in it. She loves being a doctor, and that’s what she is. Little Jo, Jo’s niece, shows a similar spirited pursuit of her interest. I enjoyed seeing her eager attempts at acting and her friendship with a stage actress, and how, instead of discouraging her passion, encourages her to grow into it.

     Then the thing with Dan happened, and the obnoxious moralizing began. Dan wants to help the Native Americans win back their land. Everyone agrees that’s a good thing to do, but maybe he should not be quite so ambitious at first, maybe just try farming? This is what happens when you try to throw water on someone’s passion, especially one motivated by a sense of justice. Dan goes to farming, but on the way discovers an innocent boy being cheated at cards. When he tries to help him, the cheater comes after him with a knife, and Dan manages to kill him by punching him.

     Seriously, he killed someone with one punch. This is truly awesome.

     He is then sent to prison for murder, because the justice system sucks, and then he spends the rest of the book talking about what a terrible person he is. I think Alcott was trying to show the psychological effects of taking a life, even in self-defense, but even the other characters agree that Dan is tainted forever and the only thing he can do is nip off and die fighting for the Native Americans to somehow atone for punching someone who tried to shank him.

     Also, he has been secretly in love with Bess, even though when he describes how he thought of her in prison, we don’t actually see that in the chapter from his perspective when he is in prison. This came out of nowhere, and everyone seems to think it is really presumptuous of him, hey England would you like your class system back?

     Anyways, the book just got increasingly annoying like this, and I had to force myself through the last part. Some parts showed Alcott’s customary charm, but I feel like she was getting as fed up with her fictional universe as I was.

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