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Reading 'Little Women': Learning to read the signposts

 


Reading 'Little Women': Learning to read the signposts

Sondra Ashton

Our northern world lies encased in snow and ice. The mercury on my thermometer has plummeted to the bottom of the bulb. On long housebound evenings I comfort myself with hot tea and a stack of classics, re-reading old favorites. As I slotted "The Great Gatsby" back onto its shelf, I felt a yen for lighter fare. I wandered over to the corner of my living room where I have a bookshelf dedicated to and stuffed with children's books. I picked out Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."

My father gave me "Little Women," wrapped in brown paper and tied with cotton store string, for my birthday when I was in the second grade. I treasured that book. I read it five or six times a year until I was halfway through high school.

I sank into my favorite chair intending to escape into the pleasures of childhood. Instead I found myself pondering Alcott's story with a growing sense of horror. I realized that at the impressionable age of seven I yearned to be a part of this fictional family. I judged myself by constant comparison. Following the philosophy it set forth, I understood that with proper effort I could attain perfection of character. If I could just be "good enough" my life would be better. People would notice, and they would have to love me. This book became a guidepost, a report card, a measure of my life. I took the way the girls lived their lives as the way I should live mine. Couple this with my own families' rigid values for behavior plus our inflexible religion and I doomed myself to fail.

Had I read "Little Women" only once and moved on to other things, Archie or Little Lulu comics, for example, I might have escaped. Or had I had the March sisters' enlightened parents to help and guide me along my path, I might have had a chance, for even with their constant love and wise teaching, pleasure-loving Meg, quick-tempered Jo, vain Amy and saintly Beth had a hard time conquering the vicissitudes of life.

But I was half an orphan, raised in a motherless family by my farmer father. We were a family that didn't talk. He expected me to figure out how to be good and then do it. Now that is not altogether a bad thing. But I had set unreasonably high expectations for myself. Had I communicated with others, enlisted the help of aunts and elder cousins and asked questions, I might have lived my life differently. But as I said, as a family we were not great at communication.

In "Little Women," the March girls used John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" as a roadmap. In that book when Christian sets off for the Celestial City, he encounters guiding signposts along the way. I thought about that. I remembered seeing similar signposts along my road. But I must have been born with a contrary nature. If one sign beckoned "Freeway" and the other pointed to "Obscure road — destination unknown, probably dangerous," I seemed to have be drawn like a magnet to the latter.

After years of making messes of my life, of bounding over cliffs and miring in the mud, I fell in with a group of people who taught me to consider the road signs before heading into the unknown. They listened to my fears. They picked me up when I fell down. They laughed at me. They cried with me. They mothered me until I could mother myself.

My life became more settled. I'll never attain the sainthood I sought as a youngster. But now I no longer worry abut being good enough. Now I see goodness all around me. I'll not always stay on the Freeway. I'll continue to explore the scenic routes of life. But I'll try to avoid the road marked "Danger — Bridge Out."

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)

Our northern world lies encased in snow and ice. The mercury on my thermometer has plummeted to the bottom of the bulb. On long housebound evenings I comfort myself with hot tea and a stack of classics, re-reading old favorites. As I slotted "The Great Gatsby" back onto its shelf, I felt a yen for lighter fare. I wandered over to the corner of my living room where I have a bookshelf dedicated to and stuffed with children's books. I picked out Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."

My father gave me "Little Women," wrapped in brown paper and tied with cotton store string, for my birthday when I was in the second grade. I treasured that book. I read it five or six times a year until I was halfway through high school.

I sank into my favorite chair intending to escape into the pleasures of childhood. Instead I found myself pondering Alcott's story with a growing sense of horror. I realized that at the impressionable age of seven I yearned to be a part of this fictional family. I judged myself by constant comparison. Following the philosophy it set forth, I understood that with proper effort I could attain perfection of character. If I could just be "good enough" my life would be better. People would notice, and they would have to love me. This book became a guidepost, a report card, a measure of my life. I took the way the girls lived their lives as the way I should live mine. Couple this with my own families' rigid values for behavior plus our inflexible religion and I doomed myself to fail.

Had I read "Little Women" only once and moved on to other things, Archie or Little Lulu comics, for example, I might have escaped. Or had I had the March sisters' enlightened parents to help and guide me along my path, I might have had a chance, for even with their constant love and wise teaching, pleasure-loving Meg, quick-tempered Jo, vain Amy and saintly Beth had a hard time conquering the vicissitudes of life.

But I was half an orphan, raised in a motherless family by my farmer father. We were a family that didn't talk. He expected me to figure out how to be good and then do it. Now that is not altogether a bad thing. But I had set unreasonably high expectations for myself. Had I communicated with others, enlisted the help of aunts and elder cousins and asked questions, I might have lived my life differently. But as I said, as a family we were not great at communication.

In "Little Women," the March girls used John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" as a roadmap. In that book when Christian sets off for the Celestial City, he encounters guiding signposts along the way. I thought about that. I remembered seeing similar signposts along my road. But I must have been born with a contrary nature. If one sign beckoned "Freeway" and the other pointed to "Obscure road — destination unknown, probably dangerous," I seemed to have be drawn like a magnet to the latter.

After years of making messes of my life, of bounding over cliffs and miring in the mud, I fell in with a group of people who taught me to consider the road signs before heading into the unknown. They listened to my fears. They picked me up when I fell down. They laughed at me. They cried with me. They mothered me until I could mother myself.

My life became more settled. I'll never attain the sainthood I sought as a youngster. But now I no longer worry abut being good enough. Now I see goodness all around me. I'll not always stay on the Freeway. I'll continue to explore the scenic routes of life. But I'll try to avoid the road marked "Danger — Bridge Out."

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)

 

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