Sister Acts, a guest post by Amanda Sellet￼
In the spring of 2018, I began brainstorming the book that would become BELITTLED WOMEN.
Those early scribblings are a mix of research notes and favorite quotes and wild-eyed what-ifs that gradually cooked down into an over-the-top story about a family of Little Women re-enactors. Instead of retelling the plot of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel, this chaotic homage takes a sideways approach, evoking (and poking fun at) the original while meditating on the power of stories – the ones we tell ourselves, and those imposed on us by others. There are plenty of Little Women Easter eggs, but also jokes.
Okay, fine: mostly jokes. To the point of parody.
(Consider yourselves warned.)
Sarcasm and slapstick notwithstanding, I also wanted to channel the spirit of the original, with its overarching themes of family and growing up and worrying about money and wanting more. And perhaps also a more literal “spirit.” At the top of a college-lined page, I jotted down the following query:
“Q: What if the ghost of Louisa May is there?”
(Clearly we were on a first-name basis by this point. Or first-and-second, anyway.)
The more I read about Alcott, the more fascinated I was by her story, and the parallels between her real-life experiences – as a daughter and a woman and a writer – and those of her most famous fictional creation: Jo March.
My editor wisely pointed out that asking readers to accept the existence of a tourist attraction called Little Women Live! was enough of a stretch without adding a spectral presence into the mix. Instead, my characters talk about Alcott: the flaky father who moved his family to an experimental commune, among other regrettable decisions; how she resisted the idea of writing Little Women, initially dubbing it The Pathetic Family; her sideline penning racy melodramas.
It’s hard not to come away from Little Women feeling like you also know its creator. This is, after all, a wholesome, heavily autobiographical novel written by a woman from a family of poor intellectuals about a woman from a family of poor intellectuals … who writes a wholesome, heavily autobiographical book. I suspect that doubling of life and art partly explains the spell Little Women has cast over so many writers, from Ursula Le Guin to Nora Ephron, with plenty of stops in between. The main characters in Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed MY BRILLIANT FRIEND re-read the story of the March sisters until the physical book is falling apart.
There are other books that feature characters who become writers, but I can’t think of one with as strong a grip on the imaginations of so many as Little Women. We remember the romance, and the cozy holidays, and of course poor Beth sighing her last, but I think there’s more to the story. It’s not a manifesto, exactly, or a cautionary tale, or an exercise in score-settling wish fulfillment, though it has elements of each. Consider this early description of Jo, transcribed in my notes alongside a look-here star in the margin:
“Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid; what it was she had no idea, as yet, but left it for time to tell her.”
Do you remember that feeling, a bottomless longing to be and do and make something exceptional? Or this one, later on:
“You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone.”
It’s a strong image, written by someone who understands the largeness of spirit that can hide behind a demure exterior. I think there’s a similar storminess of heart churning under the sweet and sentimental surface of Little Women. The desire to be an artist is not a quiet, confined state, regardless of the shape your body presents to the world, or how much space you are allowed to claim. You can darn socks and still contain multitudes.
Jo’s restless ambition is eventually rewarded with artistic success:
“There is truth in it, Jo, that’s the secret; humor and pathos make it alive, and you have found your style at last.”
I can’t speak for every writer who imprinted on Little Women at a young age, but for me that moment of complete affirmation – yes, this, exactly – is the brass ring, ne plus ultra, #goals of a creative life. It’s a more hopeful vision than the one Alcott put forth in her more literary (but far less famous) novel Moods, in which she describes a certain “sad sisterhood”:
“Gifted creatures, kindled into fitful brilliance by some inward fire that consumes but cannot warm … women who fly to convents, write bitter books, sing songs full of heartbreak, act splendidly the passions they have lost or never won.”
Am I the only one picturing Fiona Apple?
Inward fire. Maybe that’s what haunts us about Little Women: the way it calls to the ghost of our younger selves. Bitter books, songs full of heartbreak, and acting out? Sign me up. Fitful Brilliance will be the name of my band.
When I found out BELITTLED WOMEN would be released on November 29 – Alcott’s birthday – it seemed like serendipity. What would Louisa May have been and done and written if she lived today? I hope the answer is whatever she wanted.
Although Alcott never had a chance to live large, she wrote that way. And if there’s one lesson we can take from Little Women (besides not stealing our sister’s trip to Europe and her boyfriend), it’s that something as plain and unassuming as a blank page can become a whole world.
Meet the author
Amanda Sellet is a Gen X ex-journalist and perpetual older sibling who wishes she had better handwriting. She is currently enjoying the Midwestern phase of her life. To read more about her YA novels BY THE BOOK and BELITTLED WOMEN, visit www.amandasellet.com.
About Belittled Women
Sharp and subversive, this delightfully messy YA rom-com offers a sly wink to the classic Little Women, as teenage Jo Porter rebels against living in the shadow of her literary namesake.
Lit’s about to hit the fan. Jo Porter has had enough Little Women to last a lifetime. As if being named after the sappiest family in literature wasn’t sufficiently humiliating, Jo’s mom, ahem Marmee, leveled up her Alcott obsession by turning their rambling old house into a sad-sack tourist attraction.
Now Jo, along with her siblings, Meg and Bethamy (yes, that’s two March sisters in one), spends all summer acting out sentimental moments at Little Women Live!, where she can feel her soul slowly dying.
So when a famed photojournalist arrives to document the show, Jo seizes on the glimpse of another life: artsy, worldly, and fast-paced. It doesn’t hurt that the reporter’s teenage son is also eager to get up close and personal with Jo—to the annoyance of her best friend, aka the boy next door (who is definitely not called Laurie). All Jo wants is for someone to see the person behind the prickliness and pinafores.
But when she gets a little too real about her frustration with the family biz, Jo will have to make peace with kitsch and kin before their livelihood suffers a fate worse than Beth.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/29/2022
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network
Listen to Gene Luen Yang on TED Radio Hour
Fuse 8 n’ Kate: Anatole by Eve Titus, ill. Paul Gadone
Suee and the Strange White Light | This Week’s Comics
Book Review: Code Red by Joy McCullough
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving