NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, December 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the Classic Book of the Month.
This time, reviewer Emily Whitten suggests an American novel almost everyone knows. But as she explains in this conversation with Mary Reichard, this classic is worth reading again, and again.
MARY REICHARD: Well, Emily, I’m both happy and sad to talk with you today. Happy we get to talk about another classic book together. But I’m sad it’s our last book chat—I hear you’ll be changing the format of your book recommendations for the new year.
EMILY WHITTEN, BOOK REVIEWER: Yes, that’s right, Mary. I’ll still recommend my Classic Book of the Month, but after today, my reviews won’t be in the form of an interview. They’ll be features, more like Megan’s movie reviews. The big advantage will be that I can spend more time interviewing authors and literary critics. Hopefully, that means I’ll be able to dig up better insights and go deeper on our topics. But I will miss our chats, Mary!
REICHARD: I will too. But we’ll find a way to keep up with each other! Right?
WHITTEN: We will!
REICHARD: Well, let’s get going with this month’s recommendation. What book are we talking about today?
WHITTEN: How about a cozy, feel-good, slightly Christmas-y classic for the whole family?
REICHARD: Tell me more.
WHITTEN: Some may feel I’m punching a little low today when I recommend Little Women by Lousia May Alcott. But the book offers a lot more entertainment and wisdom than you may remember. And I’m not the only one who discovered that recently. Some of you may know Greta Gerwig produced a film version of the book that came out last Christmas. Here’s her speaking in a 92nd Street Y interview:
GERWIG: I hadn’t read the book since I had been like 15, and then I read it again when I was 30, and I couldn’t believe it. I felt like it was so much stranger and more urgent and modern than I remembered. There was all this stuff that I had never heard the first time. And I instantly wanted to make it a movie. I had an idea for how I wanted to do it.
I disagree with some of the ways Gerwig interprets Alcott, but I did resonate with her surprise at just what a wonderful classic this is.
REICHARD: Agreed! For those of us who haven’t read the book in a while, why don’t you remind us about some of the basics of character and plot?
WHITTEN: Sure. Little Women tells the story of the March family. That includes Father, serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. There’s Marmee, the wise and generous mother. And four daughters who are the “little women” of the title. Here’s how Alcott introduces them in the opening chapter. This is from the Penguin Classics audiobook version:
AUDIOBOOK: ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. ‘It’s so dreadful to be poor,’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. ‘I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things and other girls nothing at all,’ added little Amy with an injured sniff. ‘We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,’ said Beth contentedly from her corner. The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words….”
Mary, these characters portray the highs and lows of real family life in such memorable ways. I think of the time Amy burns Jo’s manuscript to get back at her for a small slight. Or when Jo sells her hair to fund Marmee’s trip to see Father in the hospital. As loved as these characters are today, the funny thing, Mary, Alcott did NOT want to write about them.
REICHARD: She didn’t? Really?
WHITTEN: Yeah. She grew up in Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-1800s. She revered serious, transcendentalist writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom she knew personally. Much of her young adulthood, she read books out of Emerson’s library. So, she wanted to write serious, literary works, not morality tales for children. But her editor, a man named Thomas Niles, asked her to write a book for young girls. And after much needling, she reluctantly gave it a try. Here’s Alcott biographer Susan Cheever speaking at Harvard Book Store in 2009.
SUSAN CHEEVER: And you know, within about three weeks, she had finished the first part of Little Women. She didn’t like it very much. Thomas Niles didn’t think it was too great either. Thomas Niles had a niece who got hold of the book and was up all night. But the minute, almost the minute Thomas Niles published the first part in November, the outpouring of letters and admiration was huge. And by Christmas, Louisa May Alcott was one of the wealthiest and best known authors in the world.
One thing that helped Alcott write so quickly–she based much of the story on her own family. She wrote about people and places she knew. She also used a journalistic style she developed writing about her time as a Civil War nurse. Compared to contemporary works like the Elsie Dinmore novels, Alcott’s crisp visual details and active characters make the story feel much more lively and realistic. Christian critic G.K. Chesterton would later say that her style was 20 to 30 years ahead of its time.
REICHARD: Really a visionary sort of person!
WHITTEN: Right, exactly.
REICHARD: Final question, Emily. What should Christian readers know about this book?
WHITTEN: Christians may want to pay some attention to Alcott’s transcendentalist beliefs. She rightly values self-reliance and hard work, but she also suggests we can work our way into heaven. In contrast, Paul tells us we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ.
One final point, Mary. Feminists like Greta Gerwig often claim Jo’s boyishness and her desire for independence reflect modern, feminist values. They aren’t totally wrong, but I do think they miss the bigger picture. Little Women displays the beauty of a vibrant, loving family. And that’s a divine institution. God created human families to point us to Him as our Father and the home He is preparing for those who love Him. It’s our story, too.
REICHARD: That’s especially relevant today when so many of us are separated from our families. So it’s a really good time to read about this family and remember that we will be together again someday. So thanks for this recommendation!
WHITTEN: You’re welcome, Mary. Happy reading!
REICHARD: For December, Emily recommended Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. For more classic book ideas, just search for Classic Book of the Month at worldandeverything.org.