I was aghast when my older daughter, at the age of five, informed me that she liked Mary. I had been so excited to start reading The Little House Books with her. We were reading my old copies with the cracked yellow spines and wispy Garth Williams drawings, the corners of their parchmented pages shredding beneath our fingers.
As I expected, Mara was an instant fan. We read a chapter a night, plowing our way through The Big Woods, The Prairie, and Plum Creek (pausing for me to editorialize on Ma’s anti-Indian racism, invisible to me as a child, now glaring). Just as I did, Mara began playing Laura and Mary, although for some reason I couldn’t fathom, her favorite game was “Laura and Mary Tornado,” which involved the two of us hiding under a blanket in the corner of the couch, waiting for the tornado to pass.
But then there was the Mary thing. Mary? Nobody likes Mary! Mary is obedient and boring. You’re supposed to like Laura. Laura is smart and tormented and oppressed. Remember when Mary had a real doll and Laura just had a corncob? And then Laura had to become a schoolteacher and live in the house with the scary family, while Mary got to stay home and braid rag rugs? OK, she was blind, and she apologized and told Laura she wished she could be more of a help, and Laura loved her and wanted to help the family, but, see, even when Mary was apologizing, she demonstrated Laura’s superiority. How could my own child like Mary?
It only got worse. A few years later, when we reached Little Women (you know where this is going, don’t you?), Mara liked Meg! Flighty, romantic, domestic Meg — Meg, who cared about things like gloves! How could my daughter, flesh of my flesh, a spunky book-loving child who shared my passions for books, bagels, and chocolate ice cream, like Meg? Everyone knows you’re supposed to like Jo! Jo is smart, tormented, and oppressed. For goodness sake, Jo, like Laura, gets to write the story! How could you not want to write the story? I was distraught.
It turns out I was also wrong. Not everyone likes Laura and Jo. When she was little, Eva, my younger daughter, liked Beth and Carrie, which made sense, given her familial status. In a recent highly scientific poll of my friends, I found a majority of Laura and Jo partisans, but also fans of Meg, Beth, Amy, Mary, even Almanzo. One friend eschewed them all, in favor of Rose.
If you’re not a die-hard Louisa May Alcott fan, you may not know Rose, the heroine of Alcott’s delightful but lesser-read novels, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom (from one of which I learned that you should not wear green and blue together, a lesson I think of every time I wear green and blue together, or see a tree in full leaf against a cloudless sky). But here’s the thing about Rose: those seven cousins (she’s the eighth)? They’re all boys. When it comes to Rose, you have no choice: you like Rose, or you read a different book. Indeed, you probably read Little Women. Why? So you have other choices besides Rose.
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott did not write books about big families so that girls could choose their favorite characters. They wrote autobiographical fiction in an age when large families were the norm; it’s pure coincidence that each grew up in a family of four girls. But is it such a coincidence that their novels about those girls were so successful?
Surely, their shared art and achievement was to create four distinct girl characters, so that girl readers — and even boys — could find numerous points of reference and identification, whether they were responsible, hot-tempered, gentle, tomboyish, artistic, musical, babyish, or blind. Of course, Wilder and Alcott weren’t the first authors to do this–Jane Austen’s Bennett sisters are at least one predecessor–and they surely weren’t the last, as a slew of 19th century books about big families, 20th-century boarding school stories, and the 21st-century Beacon Street Girls and Callahan Cousins make clear. But they are paradigmatic models for a pattern that still persists in our most popular children’s fiction, which draws in as many readers as possible via multiple, diverse characters: do you like Harry, Ron, or Hermione? Indeed, the pattern follows us into adulthood: see Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha.
As a child, when I read the classic children’s books for girls, the choice always seemed obvious: I wanted to be Laura and Jo and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy. Part of the attraction of these heroines stems, of course, from the fact that they are the protagonists from whose point of view the stories of their sisters and friends are told. In other words, they have a kind of narrative head start in attracting our interest, which helps explain their general popularity.
But the attraction also had to do with me. I used to wonder why so many of the books I loved featured smart, tormented girls who wanted to be writers. Then I realized that they were all written by women who were once smart girls who wanted to be writers, and that smart, writerly girls tend toward torment. Not surprisingly, I was a smart, tormented girl who wanted to be a writer: in Laura and Jo, the Little House books and Little Women offered me models for my future self.
My smart Mary-and-Meg-loving daughter is, however, a considerably sunnier character than I am. Taking after her father, Mara is an optimist who prefers life to go smoothly, and, like Mary and Meg, she will do all she can to keep it that way, unlike those of us — Laura, Jo, me — who tend to stir up trouble. She’s also thoughtful, self-possessed, and independent, as apparent in her ability, from a very young age, to assert her own identity against my desires. At the end of day, when we close our books, I’m proud of her for all of it.
If, as a child, I could only see Laura and Jo (which is to say, myself), through the eyes of my daughters, reading along beside me, I’ve come to see different alternatives and possibilities, other ways of reading and being. In turn, I have a new appreciation for the workings of some of my favorite childhood novels, and for the ways they now give me models for letting my daughters be themselves.
Note: Said daughters want it duly noted for the record that now Eva likes Laura and Mara likes Jo as well as Meg.
For more on Little Women, see Libby Gruner’s column, Children’s Lit Book Group.