I first read Little Women when I was about eight or nine. The copy of the book that I had had, I believe, belonged to my mother or one of my aunts, and was probably the 1958 edition of the book. By the time I received Little Men in 1974, I'd read Little Women at least twice. By the time I graduated from high school, I'd read it at least three more times. And I've read it once as an adult when I was in my twenties, so I'll say I've read it at least six times.
What I remember loving about Little Women: I liked the idea of having sisters (I've only got one brother). I really liked Jo, of course, because of her spunk and her creativity and love of writing. I really loved that she wrote her own newspaper and plays, and that the sisters participated in it. I admired her for selling her hair in order to get train money for her mother to visit their father, injured in the Civil War. I loved that she was bold enough to go off and be a governess, and I liked the kindly Mr. Bhaer, who had the good sense to tell her that her melodramatic dribble was just that. I loved her relationship with Teddy, the boy next door, whom she called Laurie, and sympathized with her temper when she got annoyed with Amy. Also? I sympathized when she accidentally burnt off some of Meg's hair. My annoyance with Amy as a child was such that I retain it as a general matter, even though when I read the book, I see her transformation into a young woman and actually like her relationship with Laurie/Teddy. And although I was distressed when Beth died, she was so saintly and long-suffering and all things good that it wasn't all that upsetting, really, to have her gone, apart from the fact that Jo was so upset by it.
The elements that attracted me to the text, which are wound up with the things I recall liking about the book:
1. Strong female characters. Marmee was a strong character (with rather interesting notions about education, abolition and charity, not unlike the beliefs of the real-life Alcott family, who were transcendentalists and abolitionists); Aunt March (crotchety, but strong); Meg (defies Aunt March to marry Teddy's tutor); Jo (sells hair, becomes a writer, etc.); Amy (selfish, but strong-willed) and even Beth (shy, but dedicated to carrying out the charitable work that ultimately results in her death).
2. Humor. Even though some of the funny things were tragedies to the characters, like Meg's burnt hair, there was a sense of humor throughout the book.
3. Adventure. Maybe of a quieter kind, but adventure nonetheless. Amy falls through the ice and must be rescued, Jo sells her hair for money, Jo's move to the city, Amy's travels in Europe with Aunt March . . . there's enough adventure to keep me happy, even if there's no actual sword play.
4. Rooting for the underdogs. The Marches used to be rich, but now they're not. Their father is away in the war. Times are hard, money's tight. I grew up in a house where money was tight (tighter than I knew, really, and I knew it was tight), so the feelings of having less and being looked down at really resonated for me.
5. Suspense. Would Mr. March live or die? What about Beth? Would Jo sell a book? Would she marry Laurie? Would Mr. Bhaer move west or stay with Jo?
What this has in common with the other eight books I've discussed thus far, Jane-Emily, The Borrowers, Little Men, Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte's Web, Lord of the Rings, Socks and The Incredible Journey:
As in many of the other books I've discussed, this one didn't feel like it was talking down to me, although I've subsequently realized that there were didactic "instructional" bits about learning to overcome selfishness (Amy), temper (Jo & Marmee), shyness (Beth) and materialism (Meg), some of which were accomplished in discussion and some through life experiences. But they never felt particularly preachy to me, and seemed an organic part of the text, so I never minded them. (In either sense of the word, I'm sure.)
Other key components include suspense, humor, adventure, and strong female characters. I'm wondering now whether the didacticism of the book would leap out at me more as an adult reader. In fact, I'm wondering it enough to add this book back to my TBR pile.