Just in time for the 150th anniversary this September of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel comes Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters (W. W. Norton & Company, $27.95 hardcover). This delightful and illuminating book tells the story of the novel that has captured the imaginations of generations of young readers and adults alike, and explores its phenomenal staying power.
Author Anne Boyd Rioux, who first read Little Women in her twenties and fell in love with it, tells us the unlikely story of the novel’s creation, beginning with the moment in September of 1867 that Louisa May Alcott was asked to write a book for girls. Alcott, who had always wished she were a boy, wrote in her journal that she “never liked girls or knew any” other than her sisters. Despite her initial reservations to write a book specifically for girls, she accepted the assignment for the same reason she had written so many other stories for publication: she needed the money to support her family.
A year later, on September 30, 1868, the first part of Little Women was published to great acclaim. The first printing sold out in a matter months. Fans clamored for a sequel, desperate to know the futures of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Alcott finished the novel’s second part by the end of 1868, completing a story that would shape children’s books, influence American literature, and inspire generations up until today.
In Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Rioux tells the story of the Alcott family and how they inspired the novel. Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s transcendentalist father, championed his daughters in their creative pursuits but was ultimately unable to provide for his family. Abigail May Alcott, the Marmee of the Alcott girls, while a steadying force, had times of depression and confessed to feeling angry nearly every day of her life. Rioux details how the lives of each of Louisa’s sisters—Anna, Lizzie, and May—paralleled those of their fictional counterparts, and how Louisa came to be thought of by readers, who would make unannounced visits to her house, as nearly interchangeable with Jo.
Rioux also traces the novel’s influence through the 150 years since its publication and its appearances on Broadway, radio, television, and three times, so far, on the silver screen. She also describes the character of Jo’s notable influence on diverse women writers as a model to which they could aspire and explains how characters, including Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series, can be seen as her descendants.
The book is ultimately a tribute to the novel that has played a vital role in the way decades of girls understood family, sisterhood, love, and their own capabilities. Rioux rightfully places the importance of both Louisa May Alcott and her great work in the fabric of American literature.