Year of Important Books: Little Women

Well, I suppose it had to happen eventually, but I have finally come to a beloved childhood book that I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would. And to say that it is Little Women, published in 1868 by Louisa M. Alcott  is a surprise to me!

First, some background. Little Women was apparently loosely based on the author’s own childhood, with her sisters the model for Meg, Amy, and Beth, and Louisa herself the model for Jo. The March sisters live in what could be described as genteel poverty, but the Alcotts were worse off, and Louisa, her sisters, and her mothers had to work at various jobs to help support the family.The book was instantly popular, and three months later Alcott published the sequel, Little Women Married, sometimes called Good Wives, or sometimes just bundled together under the original title.

I did not know anything about Louisa May Alcott before doing some research on her, and what I discovered was fascinating. Her parents were transcendentalists – a philosophical, literary and religious movement that sprang up in the eastern United States in the decades before the Civil War, headed by leading intellectuals of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott. These men were all friends of the Alcotts and also became her teachers in the experimental school that her father founded.

Her family, and Louisa herself, were abolitionists, and were part of the Underground Railway. They hid an escaped slave in their home for a week in 1847. She also was an early proponent of women’s rights, and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, in a school board election.

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Louisa May Alcott, in her early 20s, from Wikicommons. According to quotes attributed to her, she wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” at the urging of her publisher.

In doing my series this year I have read the book first and then done the research into the authors, just because I wanted to read the book as I did in childhood, with no preconceived notions about it. However, in this case, I wish I would have known some of Alcott’s background first, because I think I would have enjoyed it more, especially in the beginning.

In the end I did enjoy revisiting this tale of four sisters whose father is off fighting in the Civil War, but honestly I have to say if I was reading this for the first time ever I would have stopped somewhere around say, the first page. Gulp. To give you some idea of why, here’s the opening lines:

” 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 lots 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, anyhow,” said Beth, contentedly, from her corner. 

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,–

“We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say ‘perhaps never”, but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was. 

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone – 

Blah. All that “grumbled” and “injured” and “contentedly” and “sadly” and “altered”…it’s a bit much, isn’t it? It shows the reason why writers are given the advice to simply use “said” when writing dialogue. Anything else verges into melodrama. As Stephen King famously said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and in this opening scene we are marching pretty steadily down that road.

However, I do recognize that writing styles and standards have changed quite a bit in the nearly 150 years since the book was first published, so I ignored my inner critic and went on reading, getting absorbed in the tale of these sister’s lives, their small domestic dramas, and their “scrapes” as Jo calls misadventures.

The opening scene above is a fairly non-subtle introduction to the four sisters. Jo, who at 15 is the second-oldest girl, is the central character of the book, and she is given the opening line. And we are given a couple of clues about her right away. She “grumbles”, indicating her fiery personality, and she is lying on the rug, which hints at her unconventional nature.

Meg (16) and Amy (12) both are distressed at how their poverty is affecting them. Meg feels the lack of nice clothes keenly, and Amy compares herself to the “other girls” who have lots of pretty things while she makes do without.

And Beth (13) is the “saint” who brings them the proper perspective they should have on their troubles: to focus not on how much they don’t have, but, on what they do. Alcott also introduces the fact of the missing father nicely, setting the stage in which this domestic drama will be played.

After a couple of chapters I adjusted to Alcott’s style of writing and settled into the story, and some of the old enthusiasm for it came back. Of course I loved Jo all over again, as she is definitely the most interesting of the sisters. She struggles with her temper, she loves words and writing and eventually begins to publish some stories. Looking back, I believe that this is the first book I read about a girl who loved to write and eventually sent some stories out to be published, so I can see here the first prod in my writing journey, for which I am extremely grateful.

Interestingly enough, Jo mainly writes for financial gain, not artistic expression. At one point in the novel she begins to write “sensational” stories, with no morals in them, and she is chastised by her friend, Professor Bhaer, and eventually burns them all in shame. Alcott also wrote sensational stories for adults, but like Jo, eventually abandoned them after she discovered that writing wholesome stories for children brought a more positive reception.

And then there is Laurie, the grandson of the crotchedy rich gentleman next door. He becomes fast friends with the girls, especially Jo, to whom he is closest in age, and adds a nice masculine touch to the book.

The girls’ mother, Marmee (and I can never figure out if this is supposed to be her name or just the word they use for “mother”) is also presented as an ideal character, dispensing motherly wisdom here and there as the girls come to her with her various problems.

And speaking of dispensing wisdom…well, here I come to the second reason why this book struck an off-chord for me as I read it again. As an example, here’s a passage where Jo is discussing with her mother the difficulties she has in keeping her temper, and Marmee has just confessed to Jo that she, herself, has struggled in the past with this very thing.

“Poor mother! What helped you then?” 

“Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works, and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. he helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own; a startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply, rebuked me more than any words could have done; and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.” 

“Oh mother! If I’m ever half as good as you, I shall be satisfied,” cried Jo, much touched. 

Well, yes. Wouldn’t we all. I mean, everyone in this book is just so darn good. And I hate to say that all this moralizing got on my nerves after awhile, but it really did.

However,  again, tolerating the sticky-sweet flavour of the book is easier when you take into account the era in which it was written and the audience it was intended for. And considering those things, this book is actually quite remarkable, I think.

There have been reams written about Little Women, and it’s place in literary history, and the ground-breaking nature of the work. When it was first published, it was given accolades for presenting the lives of women in a “realistic” setting, and also for throwing some of the fictional tropes of the day on their heads. [SPOILER ALERT] For example Jo refuses handsome Laurie’s proposal, in favour of the older, plain, Professor Bhaer, which was completely against what would be expected in the novels of the day.

And let’s face it, don’t we all hate this part of the book? I can remember how absolutely devastated I was that Jo refused Laurie. I mean, come on. He’s handsome, he professes his love for her in charming and passionate ways, he’s known her as a good friend for a long time….and she chooses some dumpy old Professor instead?

But…..reading it this time, it didn’t bug me as much. What? Go figure. Ok, I still understand the outrage. But I guess I warmed to good ol’ Fritz a bit more this time around. And I appreciated Jo’s arguments against her union with Laurie more, too. They were too much alike. She loved him as a brother, and she didn’t have that certain spark towards him. So, really….I get it. But not being completely outraged by this was a huge surprise to me, all the same!

So I have mixed feelings about this book. Despite my initial aversion I warmed to it, in the end. And I found the information about Alcott herself very interesting. It’s the first time during my re-visit of old childhood favourites that I wished I had done the reading of the author’s background first, as I think it would have added layers of understanding to the book that would have given me more appreciation of it then I had reading it “cold”.

if you haven’t read this classic, I would highly recommend it. But if you find yourself gritting your teeth here and there as you read, just keep going. It’s a treasure that requires a little digging to fully appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

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Reblog: A Canon of Fantasy Literature (An Impossiblog)

It’s the lazy days of summer, and I find that I am getting, well, lazy.

I got bogged down a bit and just couldn’t get a post up last week. This week I could have rushed something and put up a post that really wasn’t up to snuff, but instead I have chosen to borrow some words that are much better than mine would have been today!

Over at the ever-fascinating Pilgrim in Narnia blog, Brenton Dickieson put up this post a couple of days ago, and I’m sharing it with you today. It is both an interesting post on what “should” go on a canon of fantasy literature (in other words, the best/most influential works of the genre) and as well a good place to start if you are looking for some summer reading, as he includes a few different lists.

So, enjoy! And as a bonus, here’s a link to a follow-up post of his, in which he discusses how a canon of literature is basically the “cultural capital” of a civilization, and so, if the culture and values of a society change, should we just throw out the old canon and promote a new one, more “in tune” with our culture?

Fascinating discussion.

Next week I’m heading off on holidays for a couple of weeks, but I’m working on some posts ahead of time, so never fear, dear readers, we will be wandering along The Traveller’s Path without too many detours once again!

(In case you are wondering, my feature picture this week is from the walk I took with my dog last week, which is one of the things I did instead of working on the blog.)

 

Pantsing vs Plotting: A Primer

 

Ah, pantsing vs plotting, the eternal dilemma for a writer!

There are two general ways that most writers write, and it depends on a whole bunch of factors as to which method a writer might choose. But a lot of it does come down to your basic personality. There is a way that just “works” for you.

Pantsing – this is very free-form writing. You start a story, and see where it goes. The writer discovers the story as he/she goes along. This is the type of writing where characters just “show up” and plots happen organically. Why “pantser”? It’s short for “writing by the seat of your pants”.

Plotting – a structured approach. You plan the story and most of the major plot points before you start. The writer has  a very good idea of where the story is going right from the get-go. An outline is a plotter’s best friend.

Now, to be fair, probably most writers will not write entirely as a pantser or a plotter. Most will have elements of both in their writing process. A pantser might have a general idea of where the story is going, and some plot points along the way. But he/she holds those very loosely, and is willing to veer off in a different direction if the story wants to go that way. But force a pantser to outline and he/she might break out in hives. And a plotter might be  open to making some of those course directions as well, but needs the security of having some kind of structure to start with.

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I am definitely a pantser. And I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I absolutely love to be able to dive right in to a story and just start getting the words flowing. I love being surprised by characters and situations. There is something fantastically writerly about the magic of pantsing. And I have found myself utterly amazed by this process a time or two, especially in the writing of my book.

Characters appeared that became integral to the plot, characters I couldn’t have imagined if I hadn’t been following the rabbit trail of “hmm, now what?” And even small details have connected to the larger story in incredible ways.

But there are definitely downsides to this method. First of all, you tend to do a lot more writing than you might have done if you had thought it through to start with. You do tend to write yourself into dead ends at times, and get forced to abandon thousands of words of progress that took you hours to write. This is not the best method for people who like quick results. It is not impossible to be a pantser and to write to deadline. But it gets harder to do that the longer the work you are writing.

Secondly, my Achilles heel when it comes to writing is endings. Oh, how I struggle with those. And that’s because I have a great idea to start with, and I start running with it. But sooner or later that idea fizzles out, and I just don’t know where to go from there. This is when I wish I was a plotter, and that I had a nice outline with the ending already fixed. Because once you know where you are going, it is so much easier to write towards that end goal.

Thirdly, you have to be careful as a pantser not to wait until inspiration strikes to write. There are lots of times I’ve had no idea of where to go, and have forced myself to keep going. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that could happen now?” can at least get you going somewhere. Once you have words on the page you can fix it.

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And finally, as a pantser you have to embrace the revision process. Let’s face it – either you spend the time doing the outlining before you start and the writing itself doesn’t take too long, or you spend a lot of time writing and a lot of time revising.

For plotters, the downside is that you can get so stuck on your outline that you might lose a wonderful rabbit trail that might have made your story better than you had originally envisioned it. And I suppose (although I don’t know, as I’ve never actually done this), you can get so wrapped up in writing the outline that by the time you get to the writing of the  story your enthusiasm for it all has waned.

Awhile back I thought it might be a good exercise for me to try outlining a short story, just to give myself some practice as a plotter, and to see if it helped me with my problem of endings.

It was interesting. And really, really hard. But to tell you the truth it didn’t help with my ending problem because, well, I had just as hard a time coming up with an ending using this method as I did with pantsing. Blah. I got characters in place, with back stories; a setting, a little bit of world-building; an inciting incident for the plot….and then, it all fizzled. I finally decided to start with what I had to see what might happen. Heh.

I’m happy with the story that I wrote, and I definitely got an appreciation for the value of outlining. But I won’t be switching sides to #TeamPlotter any time soon. It kinda made my brain hurt. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing once in a while, but not they way I would necessarily want to write all the time.

It’s a fascinating process, and there is always so much to learn. If you are a beginning writer or a seasoned one, I would encourage you to try out both methods. You might be surprised at what you discover.

Canada and a 6th Century Monk

In honour of Canada Day, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my favourite stories from the Britain’s Early Middle Ages; that of the 6th century monk known as Brendan the Voyager. This story has a Canadian connection because it has been speculated that Brendan and some fellow monks, not the Vikings, were the first Europeans to set foot on North America, specifically Newfoundland.

Some 50 years after St. Patrick died in 461 A.D., Brendan and other Irish monks continued Patrick’s work of converting the pagan Irish Celts to Christianity. Brendan was born in 484 A.D. in County Karee in the south-west of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 28. He frequently sailed the seas to bring the gospel to not only Ireland but also Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Gaulish outpost in the north of present-day France.

This method of travel was not unusual at this time. Overland journeys were dangerous. The roads themselves may or may not be in repair, and one could easily get stuck or delayed by bad weather. The impressive roads that the Romans engineered as a means of moving their legions easily around the country were slowly falling into disrepair, making travel difficult.  As they were the main highways they were often frequented by outlaws, which was another outcome of the absence of Roman government. The tribal kings were meant to keep their people safe in return for their tribute, but it wasn’t the same as having the might of Rome patrolling the roads.

The other small, rutted tracks that criss-crossed the country could be difficult to navigate, and what if you came across a bridge that hadn’t been kept up?

For all these reasons, plus speed of travel, people of the day often preferred travelling by boat along the rivers or in ships along the coastlines, and many were quite at ease handling their vessels on the open sea to get between Britain and the continent. It is astonishing to learn of the people who voyaged between Britain and Jerusalem, and to begin to understand the amount of trade that went on between Britain, the rest of Europe, and beyond to Asia, as shown by various archaeological finds.

For the Irish, the traditional vessel of choice was called the currach. This was a wooden-framed boat over which was stretched animal hides. The seams were sealed with tar, or animal fat and grease. This could be rowed, and for larger, sea-going vessels, a mast and sail would be attached.

There are two main sources of information about Brendan and his journey; The Life of Brendan, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.  The second one, the Voyage is the more better-known of the two, and in fact became one of the most popular and enduring legends of the time. The earliest extant version of this dates from around 900 AD, but scholars feel that it was written sometime in the second half of the 8th century, due to references to it in other earlier manuscripts.

The Voyage is written as a type of immram, which was a genre of popular literature peculiar to Ireland at that time. These works were adventurous stories of seafaring heroes. The writer of the Voyage merged this type of story with that of the traditional stories of the aesthetic Irish monks who would travel alone in boats, just as the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century used to isolate themselves in caves.

The Voyage is fantastical reading, and that’s what makes it so fun. According to the tale, sometime between AD 512-530 Brendan  became inspired by the stories of another monk called St. Barinthus who claimed to have sailed to an island found beyond the horizon. Brendan gathered some other monks and after the requisite prayers and fasting set off to find this island. They journeyed for seven years, during which time they encountered various mysterious islands and creatures, including an Ethiopian devil, birds that sing psalms, magical water that put them to sleep for a number of days, a huge sleeping whale they mistake for an island which is roused when they build a fire on it, gryphons, crystal pillars floating in the ocean, giants tossing fireballs, sea creatures, and my personal favourite – Judas, sitting on a rock in the middle of a cold, dark sea, on his weekly respite from Hell.

It is a religious work, meant to teach others about salvation,obedience, and faith. But there have been many scholars who have attempted to determine if Brendan actually took this voyage by trying to figure out the places mentioned in it. And this is where it gets interesting.

Trying to sift through the legends and myths in the story is difficult, but there are suggestions that make sense. The great crystal pillars could be icebergs. The giant demons tossing fireballs could be volcanic eruptions on Iceland. And when you look at a map, you can start to see that the journey from Ireland to present-day Canada actually might have been possible, for it is not just heading out in the open sea, but a series of navigations to the Faroe Isles, and then along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the shores of Labrador. This type of coastal navigation interspersed with short hops in-between would have been quite familiar to sailors of that time, as previously explained.

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The possible route Brendan could have taken to reach Canada in the 6th century. Map from irelandofmyheart

If you are still skeptical that such a small and fragile vessel could survive such a journey, consider that in 1976 explorer Tim Severin built a currach using traditional methods and materials such as would be common in Brendan’s time and successfully used it to travel from Ireland to Canada in an attempt to recreate Brendan’s journey.

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Model of the currach Tim Severin built to cross the Atlantic, displayed at Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. From Wikicommons.

There has also been arguments made that Christopher Columbus learned from the Voyage the directions of the prevailing winds and therefore the most favourable routes to take to and from North America on his famous journey of discovery.

It’s all fascinating stuff. So, today on Canada Day I’m hoisting my cup of tea to St. Brendan the Navigator, who possibly was the first European to set foot on our shores.

Here’s to you, Brendan, an honorary Canadian if there ever was one!


Featured picture is the marvellous bronze statue of St. Brendan crafted by Tighe O’Donaghue/Ross, found on Fenit Harbour on Great Samphire Island, in Ireland. He is depicted in traditional dress, clutching a Gospel book, leaning into a force 10 storm such as he might have faced on his travels, his cloak streaming out behind him. He points out to sea, urging us ever forward to spread the word of God. Picture from vanderkrogt.com