Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Jo and Professor Bhaer

One of the most controversial pairings in classic children's literature is that of Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I often see people lamenting the fact that Jo didn't end up with Laurie, her childhood friend, but instead fell for a much older professor.

I've pondered whether this disappointment on the part of readers is a result of some flaw in the writing, or is it just that women's expectations of marriage have changed over the decades since Little Women was first published? Or was Alcott's idea of a successful marriage just different from that of her readers?

The reasons that Jo accepts Prof. Bhaer and not Laurie are clearly articulated in the text of Little Women. While Jo and Laurie have great fun together, they also fight frequently. Additionally, Laurie is handsome, accomplished and wealthy; he enjoys music and seems to enjoy the social life. Jo is more of an introvert; social obligations bore her and make her feel awkward. When Laurie proposes, Jo answers, "'I'm homely and awkward and odd and old, and you'd be ashamed of me, and we should quarrel,--we can't help it even now, you see,--and I shouldn't like elegant society and you would, and you'd hate my scribbling, and I couldn't get on without it, and we should be unhappy, and wish we hadn't done it, and everything would be horrid!'"

Jo's answer should please the modern reader to this extent: She knows herself. She sees the points of incompatibility between herself and Laurie, how their respective needs would not mesh, and she has no desire to spend her life trying to become what she is not. This view is seconded by her mother, who says, "'You are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as well as love.'"

This is where I think today's audiences are disappointed: they want passion. "Infinite patience and forbearance" are not nearly as exciting, even if Mrs. March is right about their necessity in a marriage. Jo and Prof. Bhaer have a quiet love. They start as friends; they have a mutual respect and enjoy each other's company. Their affection is more the tender, steady sort. As a reader, I confess that I like the Jo-Bhaer match a lot more than many other Little Women fans do. (In the interests of full disclosure, I'll say that I also married someone several years older than I, but since we both act like teenagers a good deal of the time, it's rather different from Jo's match.) I happen to agree with Jo and Mrs. March that lifetime commitment requires more than just sparks, and I have a hard time seeing Jo and Laurie being happy together beyond the honeymoon.

But one thing this controversy does is to raise an interesting question for readers to ask themselves: Do you like the Jo-Bhaer match? If not, what do you think it lacks? Would Jo-Laurie really have worked? It can lead to fruitful discussions about what we look for in relationships, and what we need in a long-term relationship. And it can lead writers to think about our fictional couples, and what draws them together or breaks them apart.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Truth About Mary Rose

Recently, I posted about Laura's Luck by Marilyn Sachs, and it got me thinking about Sachs's books, which were some of my favorites growing up. I'm convinced that my reading habits influenced the purchasing decisions at the tiny public library I patronized back then. The librarians noticed that I checked out the Sachs books over and over (those were the days when they had to hand-write my library-card number on the check-out card, and stamp the due date on another card that fit into an envelope in the back of the book). They would tell me whenever a new Sachs book came in, and they said they recommended the books to other girls my age, based on my zeal.

Sachs wrote a series of books about linked characters: Amy Moves In; Amy and Laura, about the original Amy and her sister; Laura's Luck, about the two sisters at summer camp; Veronica Ganz, about a girl who had bullied Amy and Laura; Peter and Veronica, about Veronica and her friend Peter Wedemeyer; and Marv, about a friend of Peter's. All of these books took place in New York shortly before World War II. It would be interesting for writers to look at this chain of books, because it's not quite a series, but rather a set of stand-alone books whose enjoyment is enhanced if you recognize the overlapping characters from book to book. From an author's standpoint, it's a way of building an audience and using a consistent fictional world without doing a formal series.

The character Veronica Ganz had a sister, Mary Rose, whom I liked because she had built an imaginary world out of magazine pictures. It was much like the imaginary world that I, a budding writer, had constructed for myself. (Also, I liked the character's name). Mary Rose was only a minor character in those books, so I was thrilled to find Sachs's book The Truth About Mary Rose in the library one day, because it promised to give a whole book to Mary Rose.

But The Truth About Mary Rose is set a couple of decades after all the other books. Veronica Ganz is grown now, married with three children, one of whom is named Mary Rose after her sister. It turns out that the original Mary Rose perished in a fire while still a young girl.

The book revolves around the second Mary Rose's quest to find out as much as she can about the girl for whom she was named. She hunts for a mysterious box that belonged to the first Mary Rose--the only thing that survived the deadly fire. The mystery box is a device that works wonderfully, I might add. Along with the box, the second Mary Rose uncovers unexpected truths about the fire that killed her aunt, and she has to accept a certain amount of ambiguity about the events of that night.

For many reasons, this was my favorite of Sachs's books. It takes some familiar characters and shows them in a new light. It also differs from the previous books because it is told in first person, which helps eliminate the confusion of having two characters with the same name, and shortens the narrative distance. It covers family conflict in a humorous way. But mostly, it revolves around a mystery and a tragedy. It's about a passion to know the truth, and an acceptance that sometimes we can't know the full truth. It's about realizing that different people see us differently, that there is no one "true view" of ourselves in the eyes of other people. 

This book was first published in 1973, and it's interesting to see how short middle-grade books were back then--this book is only 159 pages. (In the pre-Harry-Potter era, MG books were about that long, and YA books were about 175 to 250 pages). Since it's also set around 1973, some of the references in it may puzzle today's readers--does anyone still know what a peignoir set is? But if you can find a used copy of this book floating around, it's worth checking out because it is, quite simply, an example of a darn good story: a story that has stuck in my head for years.

source of recommended read: first library, later bought

Friday, February 18, 2011

Descriptive or prescriptive?

I suspect that the descriptive/prescriptive divide is a particularly contentious one in the world of children's literature, because it depends on basic philosophical differences about what stories should do.

Some think that stories should reflect the world as it is, and should give kids a safe place in which to think through challenging situations. To ask themselves, "What would I do in that situation? Did the characters' actions work for them? Why or why not? What else could they have done?" This is the descriptive school.

Others think that stories should reflect the world that ought to be, and should give kids a safe place that represents the ideal situation. This is the prescriptive school, and its adherents tend to be more concerned with concepts such as role models.

An author of the descriptive school might write about a character with, say, a drug addiction, while a prescriptive author might shy away from including such a character. In real life, both authors may be equally opposed to drugs. The prescriptive author might say that kids need to be protected from all mention of drugs, for fear of glamorizing them. The descriptive author might believe that kids need to be protected from real drugs, but that stories in which characters encounter drugs are useful in helping readers figure out what they want to do when they're eventually faced with the real thing.

Another way to look at it: Prescriptive authors may think the world is tough enough, and books should provide a pleasant haven from the grit of real life. Descriptive authors may think that readers are comforted to know they're not alone in sometimes having negative thoughts and feelings, scary experiences, tough challenges.

My own writing tends to fall into the descriptive school, but I think it's useful to have both kinds of books on our shelves.