I first read this book for the first time for my Third Tuesday Book Club in May of 2013; I have now reread the book, as the next one in my project to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction (this book won that prize in 2006). I enjoyed reading the book again, but it was harder to read the second time, as I knew what was going to happen (and some of what happens is not comfortable reading).
The first volume of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (daughter of Bronson Alcott) was written in 1868; it begins at Christmas 1860, with the four March sisters, their mother, and the housekeeper at home, as Father is away “where the fighting is”. (This means that it should be Christmas 1861, as the Civil War began in 1861.) No more is heard of Father while the sisters go about their lives; their mother Marmee is mostly a benevolent presence hovering over them. When word comes that Father is in the hospital in Washington, Marmee goes to be with him, accompanied by Mr. John Brooke (their neighbor Laurie Laurence’s tutor), leaving the girls with the housekeeper. Marmee returns home when the third sister, Beth, contracts scarlet fever, and Mr. March returns home for Christmas 1861 (actually 1862), which is the end of the first volume.
So much for background; this book takes up the story of Mr. March (modeled on the author’s father, and of the same idealistic pacifist bent), and how he lost his fortune (by investing in one of John Brown’s projects, which failed), the family’s logical involvement with the Underground Railroad (not in Little Women, but it fits perfectly into the story), and how March came to leave his home to be a Union Army chaplain at the age of 49. He experiences the horrors of war, meets a woman he had met many years before (when he was an eighteen year old Yankee pedlar going through the South), and keeps school for the former slaves on a cotton plantation now run for the Union. His letters home are cheerful and uplifting, speaking nothing of his searing experiences, so it is a complete shock to the family to hear that he is ill in hospital. While he is delirious, the book’s voice switches to Marmee, and how she deals with his illness and the presence of the woman he had never spoken of. The book returns to March and his return to his family.
The author actually wrote the book because she lived near the site in Virginia of the Battle of Balls Bluff in October of 1861, and she set out to write a Civil War novel; it is a happy accident that she decided to write her Civil War battle using the March family and Mr. March as her template. As a confirmed lover of Little Women, I think this book is great in itself, and great for filling out the backstory of a book I have loved since childhood.