Book Review of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March. The March sisters are some of the most famously recognized literary characters in the world, whose influence is still prominent over 150 years after the publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Author Anne Boyd Rioux takes a deep dive into the influence and importance of the novel, and more importantly the characters, in her book Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters.

 

I picked up this book about a month after seeing Greta Gerwig’s Little Women in theatres, which sparked a slight obsession, but I have long since been a fan. I remember my mom reading the story to my older sister and I from a large book with pictures, and tagging along to see the musical with my sisters Girl Scout troop when I was seven. My mom and I even rewatched the Winona Ryder and Christian Bale movie this summer, and I reread the book for probably the fifth time. Despite my personal history with Little Women, I had no idea how much the book had actually affected my life until I read Anne Boyd Rioux’s book. 

 

Boyd Rioux examines Little Women from it’s conception, publication, adaptations, and influence on media today. The book begins with a comprehensive, yet extremely interesting background into Louisa May Alcott's life and childhood and the many ways in which it resembles Little Women. Louisa grew up in Concord Massachusetts, in close proximity to both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the former being a close mentor who, along with her father, encouraged Louisa immensely in her writing. The characters of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Marmee were all based on Louisa’s real family, as were many of the scenarios in the book. Following the timeline of Louisa’s life, Boyd Rioux also described her different writings, including her short stories published under a different moniker. 

 

Understanding the life, and times, of Louisa May Alcott sheds light on how ahead of her time she was as a woman and a writer, which is reflected in her characters. The March sisters are anything but perfect. Even obedient Meg struggles with being poor and adjusting to motherhood and sweet Beth is painfully shy. Louisa May Alcott was beautifully real in her portrayal of women in her novel, despite editors and critics often yearning for more angelic characters. 

 

The characters written by Louisa May Alcott, while developed comprehensively, have been interpreted in many different ways in numerous adaptations, including at least six feature films, twelve made-for-television series, an opera, a Broadway musical, and multiple inspired novels. What’s interesting about the different adaptations is not only the interpretation of the main characters, but the interpretation of the core values of the novel. For example, movie adaptations were often released during times of war or conflict, because viewers would be able to relate to the March sisters yearning for their father off at war. Boyd Rioux also examines how different directors and writers have interpreted the romantic elements of the novel, many unfortunately choosing to focus on that more than any other lesson from the novel, much to the dismay of Boyd Rioux and I’m sure, Louisa May Alcott. 

 

Boyd Rioux, as a professor of literature herself, also examines how Little Women is presented in an educational context, and arrives at the conclusion that frankly, it isn’t. While schools used to include the novel in curriculum, today, it is often placed on optional summer reading lists and regarded as a “girls book”, despite inspiring many male readers throughout history, including Theodore Roosevelt. 

 

To conclude her inspiring and comprehensive novel, Boyd Rioux examines the influence of Jo March, and the other March sisters, on many of the female characters we have today, including Hermione Granger, from the Harry Potter series, Rory Gilmore, from the television show Gilmore Girls, and Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games series. Female characters who challenge the traditional ideals of femininity and grace, and instead are flawed, driven, inspired, and passionate. 

Anne Boyd Rioux has critically and heartfully examined Little Women and the impact it has had on numerous readers throughout history. While many of us are familiar with the story and characters of Little Women, this book allows us to take a fresh look into the many different factors that make this book so influential and inspiring. Boyd Rioux proves that Little Women has a spirit that cannot be broken, and continues to inspire generations of women to come. I highly recommend this book for anyone who has experienced the joy that is Little Women.