Friday, June 22, 2012

Second childhood

It’s funny the things you remember from the iconic books of your childhood. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was a book I read over and over as an elementary school kid, but my overwhelming response upon revisiting it as an adult was gak! What a load of sentimental claptrap! I’m kind of afraid to approach the Little House books (also read and re-read) now, and when I had to chance to listen to Little Women, I approached it with some trepidation as well. I heard some things that surprised me, but mostly was pleased with the robust – shall I say even feminist – story and characters that have stood the test of time.

On the other hand, I was quite disappointed that this copy of Little Women ends prematurely – pretty much before all the bits that I remember. My print copy of Little Women has a Part One and a Part Two (and so does the Gutenberg Project's), but evidently Louisa May Alcott wrote two completely separate books – Little Women (1868), immediately followed – because her publisher begged her for a sequel (some things never change) -- by Good Wives (1869). I’ve now got an audio version of the second half (different publisher and narrator) waiting for me to check out because – well, because it’s not Little Women without Beth doing you-know-what and Jo finding her literary voice (and Professor Bhaer). I shall not speculate in this forum why AudioGO decided to publish the two novels separately, but I would encourage the company to put them back together the way they belong.

For my few readers who are unfamiliar with this novel, Little Women tells the story of the March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – living in somewhat straitened circumstances due to their father’s poor investments.  Mr. March is off with the Union Army, while Mrs. March (Marmee) keeps hearth and home together. In a letter Mr. March instructs his girls to be good little women and that’s pretty much all that happens. Each girl has a unique personality – with faults and goodness both – and during the course of the year their father is away, their goodness mostly grows while their faults are acknowledged and perhaps repaired. Tragedy brushes close, but does not alight (I had to toss in some 19th century language), a true friend (next door neighbor Laurie) is found and the eldest discovers love.

Along the way, Marmee dispenses the occasional bit of wisdom, encouraging her girls to grow up to be strong, independent women, who might choose to devote themselves to marriage and motherhood, but they don't have to. I heard a lot of give-yourself-over-to-a-higher-power from Marmee as well – this was the part that surprised me – but I only remember Jesus and God mentioned once during these homilies. And now that I've figured out that Transcendentalists are now Unitarians, this all makes sense. Alcott's father was among the founders of this faith, and she counted Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of her close friends.  

Little Women is read by Lorelei King. I’ve heard her read just once, but I was so impressed that when this showed up in the Solid Gold offerings, I requested this because of her. She’s got a very pleasant reading voice (liquidy and soothing) that works for the omniscient and occasionally pedantic narrator, and she provides an emotional honesty to the little bit of drama in this story that elevates it from a somewhat 19th century bathos to the real feelings of real people. Her narrative choice was to give each sister a distinctly different voice – which made whispery Beth and childish Amy just a little bit difficult to tolerate. But I loved her voices for Meg (steady and low) and Jo (louder and boyishly eager), and Marmee’s calm and loving delivery meant that her little lectures were mostly tolerable.  She only goes drastically wrong in her interpretation of the family’s housekeeper Hannah who seemed to veer back and forth from Southern U.S. to Irish (if Hannah’s origins were described in the book, I missed this information).

When I think about going back to those books that I remember from my childhood, I mostly want to listen to them. Thus far, it’s been a less than successful exercise: I listened to a dreadfully narrated version of A Little Princess a few years ago (my library has two versions of Little Women on CD and when I saw that the narrator of Princess was narrating one of them, it was an easy decision to go with Kate Reading for Part Two), and the Five Little Peppers was just a bad book.  What else might I regret experiencing again? Nancy Drew, at least one Little House book, something from Oz, and Pippi Longstocking hover about on the long (growing every day) I-want-to-listen-to-this list.

This copy of Little Women was generously provided by AudioGO through the Solid Gold Reviewer program at the Audiobook Jukebox.  They sent me another one too, but I gotta finish up the March sisters first!  I thank them.

[The undated photograph of Louisa May Alcott is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

This post written and laboriously uploaded to the world using Amtrak's extremely off-and-on wifi while traveling on the Coast Starlight from Portland to Los Angeles. In the 30 hours in the Parlour Car and a teeny-tiny roomette, I have felt quite special.  I'm finishing up in L.A.'s Union Station, waiting for the train to Anaheim, which shockingly does not have wifi (Union Station doesn't have wifi ... I don't know about Anaheim). I'm borrowing Starbucks'.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Narrated by Lorelei King
AudioGO, 1995.  8:07

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