Reading With Pearl & Rose: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

As before, this will be less of a book review and more a way to share my experience of re-reading childhood favourites with my own children. For reference, my kids are ages 7 and 4.

Little Women is such a classic story and one I’ve read and watched so many times that I have trouble distinguishing specific memories of it. Growing up, I read it in two volumes – Little Women (pictured above on the left) and Good Wives. The edition that we got for the girls (pictured above on the right) had both of these books in one volume, divided as Part I and Part II and so for ease I’ll refer to them as such. The two parts were published separately and we took a break between reading them but when people refer to Little Women they’re generally referring to both sections.

My little girls love books with sisters in them so I felt pretty sure they would enjoy this classic tale of four sisters. I remember reading about the March sisters and wishing I had something other than just a stinky older brother. (It’s fine, he doesn’t read my blog!) Pearl and Rose embraced the sister dynamic and had no problem understanding the way they fought and loved each other and imagined together. We’ve read a few old-fashioned novels aloud with them so they had no trouble with the setting or with the vague mentions of war. (It took me years before I realized it was the American Civil War going on here.)

Things like putting on plays and going to the beach were easy for Pearl and Rose to identify with. I paused after Part I because I wasn’t sure if the second section’s focus on marriage and motherhood and career would be as engaging for them. (Not to mention the tragedy of Part II.) However, they insisted and so onward we went. In the end, I’m not sure that they did enjoy or understand it as much but they were happy enough to keep reading.

The old-fashioned language was probably the biggest barrier in our reading together as there were a lot of words, phrases, and references that they were unfamiliar with. As well, reading it aloud to my own daughters made me realize how gendered the whole story is. There are a lot of stereotypes about what a woman should be and I found myself skipping over or editing, especially in the chapters that focused on Meg in Part II. They didn’t ask, but I couldn’t even begin to know how to explain to my daughters why Meg is fearfully presenting her cheque book to her husband and has so little ownership over their family’s finances.

At the same time, there were parts I’d never fully appreciated before. When Marmee confesses to Jo, “I feel angry nearly every day of my life”, I felt that to be one of the more honest portrayals of adult life that I’ve ever seen. Overall, it’s not hard to see the lasting appeal of the March family, for readers of all ages.

14 thoughts on “Reading With Pearl & Rose: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott”

  1. I think you have to be an adult or possibly even an adult before you can fully appreciate Marmee’s admission of feeling angry nearly every day of her life. Glad to hear you and the girls are enjoying these books.
    Will you follow up with Little Men and Jo’s Boys?

    1. I think you’re right – I never even noticed that line of Marmee’s in previous readings.

      I hope to return to Little Men and Jo’s Boys eventually but for now we’re taking a break. I know I’ve read them but I have less distinct memories of them.

    2. There are so many other books to share with your children while they are still young enough to enjoy reading together, too.
      I’m really enjoying these posts as they bring back happy memories of my own.

    3. I’m glad to hear that! And there really are so many great kids books to re-enjoy, as well as lots of new ones to read with them.

  2. It was seen as two separate books when I was young too, and it’s only recently I’ve become aware that people now consider the two parts to be one book. I do think Good Wives is less interesting to young’uns, but I was quite happy to then get onto Little Men.

    1. I remember Little Men being fun. I think we’ll take a break from Alcott for a while but perhaps return to Plumfield eventually.

  3. Interestingly, I didn’t think of the part about Meg spending too much being gendered. I know when my husband and I were still dating there were moments of financial surprise on credit cards or history of spending. Anything money that affects the family in a negative way feels like a confession. However, I also understand that it’s like Meg is confessing she blew her husband’s money. Which she did. But it’s shared money, as she runs the household (oddly, Nick and I have a similar arrangement; he makes the money and I manage it).

    Biscuit and I talked about how the American Civil War seems barely present in the novel, and we both wished for more. Anytime you read about the War, you see it affects all families directly, whether their family has sent off soldiers or they are now poor because they lost someone, or even in the south when plantation owners were fighting to keep their “property” (uh, those are people). The slow down of goods (much like today), etc. It affected everyone, and that just doesn’t come through in Alcott’s books.

    1. Peter and I have a similar arrangement too – he makes the money and I manage bills and household stuff. What I don’t like about that scene is the sense that Meg has an allowance and has to ask her husband permission; I feel like it makes her like a child, like she doesn’t have a right to spend money on herself because it’s his. Peter and I always run big purchases by each other but I never feel like I’m asking permission to spend his money. Thinking it over, I think I’m sensitive about it because I was reading it to my girls and I want to foster independence in them. They see a lot of families around them where the men are the main earners and that’s fine but I’m also always trying to encourage the idea that their future could include that or it could include them being the primary earner or it could be a future where they’re not married. Though all that subtext in the book was probably not something they really picked up on!

      The war does seem more like a convenient background, just a reason for their father to be absent. As a kid I had no idea what war they were talking about or why their father was gone.

    2. There is a part of my brain that is so punchy/fighty in regards to money and feminism, and I’ve had to think very hard about all the labor women, in particular, do that doesn’t earn money. Thus, him making money and me managing it is both work. I’m guessing you and I both have many thoughts about finances!

    3. I think you’re right! And I think you and I would largely agree. Taking care of a household, cooking (and planning) meals, caring for children – all those things are work and if I didn’t do them, we’d have to pay someone to do them. So I don’t feel guilty about also spending money on myself. And I wish Meg could have done the same! It’s no wonder though that money is a major stress factor in relationships!

  4. So my kids are just turning 7 and 4, but I’m not sure they are ready for big reads like this. We spend about 20 minutes reading each night, usually 3 different picture books, or some chapters from an early graphic novel, etc. But we haven’t moved into chapter books regularly – how many pages a night would you read of a chapter book, typically?

    1. Honestly, I think it really depends on the kid. We started reading chapter books with Pearl after she turned 4 and Rose tagged along but I don’t think I would have started at that age if we were just dealing with Rose! Our normal routine is 2 picture books (they each pick one), chapter from a children’s Bible, and then maybe 10-15 pages of the chapter book. This one we broke up into lots of short chunks because the writing is so dense but now we’re reading Roald Dahl and can get through 2 chapters a night. I also started with chapter books that had LOTS of pictures so graphic novels seem like a great jumping off point to me.

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