All the springs that came before

 

I bought four peonies last weekend. I had forgotten how they smelled: rich, aromatic, but not as cloying as a rose.

When my mother was in her 90s, I brought her outside one day. We were headed to the doctor’s. Before she would get in the car she thrust her head into the lilac bush and breathed deeply.

She couldn’t really see those lavender blooms, but she could smell them, and they must have carried for her the rich association of all the springs she had lived before.  

Peonies, of course, remind me of her, because she grew them – pink and white – in the perennial garden outside the kitchen windows. Peonies bloomed first, then the phlox. I loved all of her flowers, the day lilies next to the clothesline, the borders of jonquils and tulips, the garden full of dahlias, gladiolus, and zinnias.

There were few weeks in the spring and summer when we didn’t have flowers for cutting.

The forsythia came first, clipped and brought inside to force into bloom. Then the daffodils bobbing their happy faces. May was lilac time, which always carried with it a twinge of melancholy, because they always flowered the weekend we visited the graves for Memorial Day.

By June, the stone wall was covered in rambling red roses, ready for one of my mother’s milk glass vases. She had a container for every bouquet: Small brown baked-bean jars for the short stems of marigolds; a tall glass covered in a wheat design for taller stalks like pussywillows or the leggy glads; narrow bud vases for a single rose.

Not all of her flowers were for picking. ‘Heavenly blue’ morning glories climbed the trellis on the side porch. Petunias, bought as seedlings, filled out the corner by the propane gas tank. The ubiquitous yucca – that native Western flower that dug into our sandy soil and refused to let go – sent up white spikes that would prick you if you weren’t careful.

By late summer her cutting garden would be a riot of oranges, reds, and yellows. I loved the zinnias best, and kept a vase of them on the desk in my bedroom. On the years when she grew dahlias, we enjoyed them through September, their floppy stems tied to stakes by strips of old pantyhose.

Each season is stamped with the memories of the years that came before. Not matter how old you are, there is really only one spring, one summer, one winter, and one fall. Each time a season returns, we experience our memories of what it means. This is what T.S. Eliot meant when he called April the “cruelest month.”

When my mother inhaled the lilac’s scent, what associations did it evoke for her? Did she remember growing up on the Crandall Homestead, where lilacs abundant with blooms can be seen in old snapshots? Or did she inhale the same melancholy memories as I did?

Few of my mother’s flowers have survived. The yard of the Shannock house is overgrown with Japanese knotweed, briars, and wildflowers. Only the stubborn yucca continues to send up its white spikes, impervious to the construction around it.

But the landscape survives in my memory. I know where the peonies once bloomed, the roses rambled, the morning glories climbed. I can still see the shapes of my mother’s gardens – the circle of phlox, the hill where the lilies lived, the rectangular plot that held annuals and vegetables.

When I take in all those scents again, it will be memory I’m breathing in, memory of the seasons that came before.

 

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My father, the douser, the diviner

 

My father was a douser. He could cut a V-shaped stick of willow or cherry, grasp each end in his hands, and walk the land until he found water.

He had a calling. “Electricity in the veins,” as he said. To prove it, he would stand over the septic tank and that stick would point straight down, while the muscles in his arms popped from the strain of holding it steady.

People knew this and sought him out. Old Ben James, who was more Swamp Yankee than my father, had him walk his potato farm in Wood River Junction. Others asked him to work his magic before they called the well driller.

Our own well went dry off and on after we bought the house in Shannock in 1965. That year, and the year after, one of the worst droughts in the state’s history choked off the springs that kept our dug well full. In the winter we melted snow to wash hair. In the summer we collected water in a rain barrel.

Finally, in 1971, the task could no longer be postponed. My father called the well driller. He must have walked the yard first, but I don’t recall it. I was 11 years old that fall and reading the “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which didn’t seem all that far from how we were living.

All of this has been on my mind because last week they tore down the corn crib. It was about ready to fall down, anyway, and we had salvaged what tools we could – the potato digger, the post-hole digger, spades and rakes and hoes, a cross-cut saw.

With the contractor’s attention turned elsewhere, the roof lay flattened atop the floorboards. I picked up a rusty metal rake and began poring over the contents. Most of what littered the floor was empty walnut shells left by squirrels, but a few artifacts remained: A brake light. A commercial license plate. A Nehi soda bottle.

Then I saw it. Stretching, I was able to hook the metal tines around one end and pull it forward.

My father’s dousing stick.

How easy it would have been to mistake this for a piece of brush. I held it to my chest, amazed I’d spotted it, grateful I could save it.

He had hung it on a hook in the old shed. Its end looked freshly sharpened.

I grabbed each end, thumbs up, the way he’d taught me. The wood trembled at my touch. I aimed its pointy end outward and began to walk.

I crossed the driveway, passed over a patch of lawn, and paused at the septic tank. But after that first vibration, nothing happened. My father had long ago given up on passing his magic to me. I didn’t have the electricity in my veins, he said.

But he was wrong about that.

I might not be able to find water. The ancient Yankee art of dousing might have died with him. But I have a different sort of power in my veins. Like his, those veins rise under my skin, blue highways on a relief map.

My father told me about other wells, other springs. Boiling springs: “There used to be one at Mame Thomas’s. She had a house over on the Mooresfield Road … up behind the barn was this boiling spring. … they used it. Fine water.” The well at Tug Hollow, where he grew up: “One year we had a drought. I’ll tell you, people from all around were coming to us for water. Used to put a trout in it [to kill bugs].”

I jotted his stories in notebooks large and small, in diaries and journals. They still give rise to sketches, and stories, and novels.

As sure as a dousing stick, I wield my pen. I pace these pages every day, looking for water, remembering my father. Like his blood in my veins, his electric voice runs from my head to my hand to the ink on the page.

No coincidence that divining is a synonym for dousing (sometimes spelled dowsing). For what are we doing when we search for water but telling the future, portending, showing the unseen? Surely a man who can reveal what lies underground has some powers of prophecy.

And what do we do when we write, but discover, guess, explore the unknown? Consider this meaning of to divine, from my old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “to perceive through sympathy, or intuition; to detect; to conjecture.”

Walk the land, my father told me. Cut the branch of a willow or a cherry. Hold that stick fast and pace. And you will find the water that runs beneath, the subterranean vein, the well of creativity.

 

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The power of the personal library

 

It’s hard to overestimate the importance that owning books played in my development as a reader and a writer. Although we had books in the home and went to the library regularly – by age 10 I was walking to Clark Memorial Library by myself after school – there is a difference between borrowing books and purchasing them.

The borrowed book is read, enjoyed, and returned to the library, perhaps imprinting a few lasting images on our memory. The purchased book is read, enjoyed, and returned to its shelf in our homes, a lasting reminder of the reading experience and available at any time for rereading.

By age 12 I had a small library of my own, mostly paperbacks purchased through the Scholastic Books program. Baby boomers and millennials alike will remember the colorful newsletters that were passed out in class, with their long order form inviting student purchase. Although money was always tight in our household, I can’t remember my mother ever saying no to my book requests, and a typical order might be two or three paperbacks.

Soon I had built a library of maybe two dozen books. I favored Lois Lenski’s stories of regional America, like “Prairie Girl” and “Strawberry Girl”; classics like “Little Women”; and stories of strong working women, like “Nellie Bly, Reporter.”

Sometimes, I would buy a book based on its description in the flier, only to find it too difficult or dull to capture my interest. For some reason I bought, but never read, “The Secret Garden,” for example.

The never-read and the well-thumbed books shared space on a makeshift board shelf in my room. Taking the idea of a library literally, I decided to turn my modest collection into the Thayer Free Library. My mother, again never one to stint on the educational, bought me white stickers and a due-date stamp. I fashioned by own due-date slips out of index cards and cardstock, and used my mother’s old Royal manual to type out call numbers on the stickers, which were then affixed to the book’s spines.

By this time I had begun working in our elementary school library, where I became familiar with the Dewey decimal system. I don’t recall ever actually letting someone borrow books from Thayer Free Library, however. It was the cataloging I loved.

Sometime in my early teen years, the library book sale replaced the Scholastic flier as my primary source of reading material. The first book sale I probably attended was at the Washington County Fair, where every August Clark Memorial Library filled a booth full of library discards. What riches! While my friends were riding the Tilt-a-Whirl or eating fried dough, my sister and I were browsing this pop-up bookstore. Here I filled my arms with old sentimental novels, reference books, and trashy paperbacks like “Nightmare County” and “Forever Amber.”

But for every Jacqueline Susann novel I brought home (my mother was less sanguine about these, calling them “trash” and “filth”), my library began to fill with classics, books that would remain in my library for decades to come and shape how I viewed the world. I was 15 when I bought a Harvard Classics edition of “Walden,” which still occupies a place of honor on my writing desk. Plays by Luigi Pirandello and Anton Chekhov, the short stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, poets from Walt Whitman to Sylvia Plath, and the novels of Faulkner, Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis – these I consumed as avidly as an Agatha Christie mystery or pulp paperback.

Without realizing it, I was beginning to develop a reading aesthetic. I discovered regional novelists like William Humphreys (Texas), Shirley Ann Grau (Louisiana), and Ruth Moore (Maine). One writer led to another – Welty to O’Connor, O’Connor to Carson McCullers, McCullers to Truman Capote. All of these books began to form a web of impressions in my mind, that I tested against the reality of my own family life – the tragic, the grotesque, the comic, the pathetic. Not yet certain why one writer enthralled  and another left me cold, nonetheless I began to apprehend my own taste and to trust it.

Over the years, I’ve carried these books with me, occasionally scuttling some over the bow, as it were, to make room for more. I collected Sinclair Lewis for years, but eventually had to sacrifice most of his ballast for more contemporary writers.

Each time I moved, my father would call up his sawmill helpers and enlist them to carry the heavy boxes from one apartment to another. Doing his part, he made me two bookcases out of rough pine, perhaps optimistic that two bookcases would be sufficient.

A few months ago, my library was packed up again. My now it has grown to hundreds of books. I still have some of the original Thayer Free Library volumes (“The Schoolhouse Mystery,” “Mr. Pudgins”) and library book sale acquisitions from long ago (“Autumn Comes Early,” by Howard Breslin, a romance set against the backdrop of a hurricane). To them have been added dozens of novels, biographies, nature books, poetry collections. My husband claims he put 68 boxes into our Pod, and it’s probably not a exaggeration.

Maybe it’s because I still remember the thrill of acquiring those first volumes, the pleasure of marking them as my own – Thayer Free Library – and having them at hand to thumb through, over and over, that I have kept buying, and keeping, books. Certainly, keeping books carries a certain price, but weighed against the joy they have brought me, I would buy them all again.

 

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A writing hangout with a long history

 

It takes me 20 minutes to drive to Dave’s Coffee in Charlestown from our apartment in Wakefield. To do so I leave our complex, home to a coffee house frequented by college students, and zip down Route 1 south past another coffee shop that offers music on Sundays. Not to mention all the Dunkin’ Donuts along the route.

There’s nothing wrong with these other places of business, mind you. They’re just not Dave’s.

At first blush you might not see much in the old house on Route 1, located atop a hill just past the Wilcox Tavern (built circa 1739) in Charlestown’s only historic saltbox house (1855 or earlier). The building, home of the trendy Galapagos boutique since 1989, began hosting a coffee house as an amenity for shoppers. Dave’s Coffee now includes a coffee bar in Providence and a wholesale coffee bean and coffee syrup business.

Did I mention I don’t drink coffee?

So, while people rave about the locally roasted and ground coffee beans, I’m not driving 20 minutes for a great cup of joe. I’m an iced tea woman all the way and that’s what I drink at Dave’s. I am also a choco-holic, and if you get there early enough in the afternoon you can try one of their melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip/sea salt cookies.

But this blog isn’t about coffee, tea, or even cookies. It’s about finding a good place to write. And Dave’s Coffee is where I go to bang out a book review, work on a novel chapter or send out agent queries.

Inside the red saltbox house are many signs of what was once the Wilcox farmhouse: deep fireplaces, wide-board floors, low ceilings. The floors could use refinishing and the windows appear original. In short, this is not some over-decorated, modern hipster hangout.

Yet this quirky old farmhouse, with its stylish boutique in the back, has a vibe to it. The servers are friendly and hard-working. Everyone seems to be in a good mood. Yesterday, a rainy Monday afternoon, so many people were hanging out – hunched over laptops or sharing a coffee break – there was only one seat left when I arrived. On weekends a steady stream of people come in and out of the coffeehouse, some arriving on bicycles or in hiking attire.

Of course, had it been a sunny day, I could have taken my iced tea and cookie outdoors to one of the many seating areas. There are the white wrought-iron chairs under the grape arbor, where my husband and I like to watch the song sparrows eating leftover crumbs. In the back is a water feature with seating, the side hill has a cozy settee, and picnic tables overlook Route 1.

This time of year the property is ablaze with flowers: the pink peonies are budded, the white ones have burst forth, and purple and yellow iris wave in the wind.

The effect is such that you don’t want to leave.

I practice three kinds of Dave visits – weekend sojourns with my husband, when we share the cookie; visits with writing friends; and solo visits on my time off, when I usually stay an hour or two, depending on how the work is going. Last summer, my friend Patti and I went to Dave’s every morning to work on our manuscripts under the arbor.

Sometimes we run into people we know, and sometimes we chat with people we don’t – such as the retired doctor who’s reading the Iliad. Sometimes, yes, we eavesdrop.

You hear a lot these days about how disconnected we all are. Certainly, a lot of people sitting in this coffee shop are staring at their phones. But just as many people are having genuine conversations or deeply immersing themselves in reading, writing, or studying. And I’m convinced that it’s the place that makes the difference.

The old salt box on Route 1 – what used to be Post Road – has character, a rich history, and a welcoming atmosphere. That’s why I drive 20 minutes, past many other similar hangouts, to get there, and that’s why so many pages have been written at its cozy cafe tables.

 

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Out of the past: A 14-year-old’s look at 1965

The scrapbook is standard issue – antique white cover, broad pages, tied binding. Before scrapbooking became a hobby, with special pens and supplies and adhesives, before Pinterest and Instagram, this is where a teenage girl kept her mementos. I had one myself.

But this one has been hidden away for more than 50 years. When I pull it out of the upstairs closet, I realize – and it seems impossible, given the number of times I’ve combed through this house – I’ve never seen it before.

The year is 1965. My sister Andi is 14. This is a record of one year of her life, and of one year of cultural change.

The Beatles are on the first page.

Although she had a few of their albums, Andi was not a big Beatles fan. At least, I didn’t think she was. But at age 14, the end of Grade 7, she had yet to move on to Motown. And here are the Fab Four, George Paul John and Ringo, each holding a bouquet of flowers.

Sharing that first page are advertisements for two movies – “Dr. Zhivago” and “A Patch of Blue” – and the folk duo Peter & Gordon, appearing at the Albee Theater, wherever that was.

The scrapbook is full of movie ads. I don’t know whether she got to see any of these movies – I vaguely remember my parents taking us to the drive-in: once – but Andi was fascinated by movie stars and moviemaking. “Cat Ballou.” “Ship of Fools.”

And famous people. The queen of England smiles in a garishly retouched photo. “Jackie is 36 Today,” reads the headline on an AP story about Jackie Kennedy – a widow, but not yet Mrs. Onassis – celebrating her birthday at Hyannis Port for the first time since the assassination.

Jackie and Queen Elizabeth share space with dead relatives. “Aunt Martha Dead at 102,” reads the obituary of Martha Crandall, who really was some sort of relation to us, and who, according to the story, had been “formally recognized as Charlestown’s oldest resident about ten years ago when town officials called at her farmhouse and presented her with the Boston Post goldtop cane emblematic of the honor.”

I wonder what Aunt Martha would think to know that my Aunt Ruth, also a Crandall, is very much alive at 106.

There’s my cousin Frank, with a flat-top crew cut, who “was presented the Outstanding Achievement Award at a special assembly in Euless Junior High School recently.” Frank, who lived in Texas briefly while his father worked for Cottrell, recently released his fourth book, on global warming, at the Haversham in Westerly. The press, alas, did not cover this most recent achievement – more of a comment on the state of newspapers than on my impressive cousin.

She took care to clip out an end-of-year story, “Charlestown is Center of Newsy Events During 1965,” by the Westerly Sun’s Leo Dotolo. Among the highlights were an attempt to stop trailers from parking at the beach (“Members of the Rhode Island Beach Buggy Association were up in arms over the regulation,” Dotolo reports), angst about the future of the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, and a drought that brought “conditions … as bad as they have been in 70 years.”

Her interest in true crime narratives is already evident here, with a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald and another AP story about two missing brothers, ages 17 and 3, on Mt. Katahdin. Their mother feared they had been kidnapped.

There are pages devoted to personal milestones. The year we lived at Watchapay, a farm on Old Mill Road, complete with snapshots. My sister Mary Jane’s wedding, with two souvenir napkins and Andi’s handwritten inscription: “Dearly Beloved … The marriage of my sister, Mary Jane, to Joseph Tennis Charland, Jr. Nov. 20, 1965.”

Andi saved Christmas cards, magazine covers, and clippings from catalogs. There’s an icy glass of Coca-Cola, women with mod bangs, pictures of horses.

As the pages mount, the news becomes more serious. The world is changing and so is my sister.

She has headed one page “THE VIETNAM CRISIS,” with clippings about bombers and missiles and mortar attacks. Photo after photo appears of men enlisting in the military or being sent to war. And these were only the ones she knew.

And there is the eerily prophetic clipping, “Youth, 18, Charged After 2-Car Crash,” about an

young man from Exeter charged with driving to endanger after striking another car and seriously injuring its occupants. The clip and the subsequent court appearance are presented without comment.

There’s a lot of real estate between that first page, of the Beatles in their mod haircuts, until those later pages filled with scared soldiers and bombing campaigns and reckless youths. The context of the time cannot be removed from the personal story chronicled here. Vietnam leached its way into everything. Andi and Mary Jane’s classmates were headed off to war, trying to avoid the draft, and feeling the pressure to live while they could. Mary Jane’s estranged husband had served a stint in the Air Force. The driver who killed her, two years later, was a Marine veteran of the war; the man who was in love with her had already served two tours of duty. When he learned of her death, he volunteered for a third mission, not caring whether he lived or died.

Is it any wonder these young women were quitting school to get married? And these young men were driving down the back roads of Chariho as though chased by the devil himself?

Andi started out the year clipping pictures of a hunky man with a pack of Pall-Malls, girls in knee-high skirts, the Four Seasons. Before the year was out, she could no longer look away from the headlines. And that’s probably why she kept this scrapbook tucked away in the eaves of an upstairs closet, between the folds of her bridesmaid’s dress and the wedding gown train of the sister who would not make it out of the decade.

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The lost shoes

 

Of course, these aren’t the original steps. The wood has rotted and been replaced a few times since 1965. But the space they occupy, the purpose they serve, and the sounds they make are all the same.

There must have been a first time I walked up those steep wood steps to the side porch and entered the house. I don’t remember it.

I do recall sitting on them one day in the hot summer of ’66, holding a new Barbie doll, a gift from my Aunt Dot. My mother thought six was a little young to own a Barbie, but she would have to pry the statuesque 9-1/2-inch figure from my hands if she thought I would give her up.

She was bubble-head Barbie, blonde, and she came with a red one-piece bathing suit and high heels. After many years of taking her head on and off, I split open her chin, so my sister christened her Cleft-Chin Barbie, which we shortened to Cleftie. It stuck.

But her facial deformity was far in the future. What immediately concerned me were those high heels.

They were white plastic, open-toed, spike-heeled slides, standard issue for Barbie at the time. And somehow I managed to drop them between the steps and porch floor.

Short of taking an ax to the steps, the shoes were beyond retrieval. So before she ever lost her smooth chin, before her hard rubber legs grew grungy, Barbie became barefoot – perpetually on tip-toe. No wonder, in my play, she would evolve into the beleaguered mother of a passel of castoff Barbies, Kens, Midges, Skippers and Scooters.

I’m sure other treasures disappeared behind the porch steps over the years. I would sit on those steps and eat my mother’s Big Boy tomatoes on a Popsicle stick like they were candy, or whole cucumbers doused in salt. We spit watermelon seeds from the top step.

On the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I stood there and announced importantly that I didn’t know why Howard – my grandmother’s longtime companion – had showed up, repeating something I’d overheard from the adults. “Uh, how’s school?” my normally quiet uncle asked.

When it rained, my father stood on the porch looking out toward the dirt driveway we shared with a  neighbor, beyond to a row of brush and the Smiths’ hay field. “Send her down, David,” he would say.

Years later, when he was in his 80s and still manning that lookout on the porch every rainy day, I asked him what he meant. I had an idea it had something to do with David and Goliath.

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “It’s just something my father used to say.”

For a while, we had an old Cleopatra couch on the side porch where I would lounge on muggy summer days, reading books that my mother said were “too old” for a sixth-grader – novels like “Marcy Grows Up” and “Fifteen,” about girls attending proms and waiting for their first kiss.

The steps took us in and out of the house. Clomp, clomp, clomp, down the porch steps; clomp, clomp, clomp, back up.

Returning home, my mother would grab the railing with one hand and, in the other, carry the pillow she sat on when she drove. Her hair would be freshly styled from a visit to a beauty parlor owned by Lois or Maxine or Brenda.

My grandmother, with her perpetual dowager’s hump, would struggle up the steep steps, balancing a sheet cake for someone’s birthday.

Those steps took us to places we shouldn’t have been going. My sister Mary Jane slipped down the porch steps one December night, and she never came back. A horn honked and my sister Andi slammed out of the house, across the porch and down the steps, to the older man waiting for her in the driveway. She came back, but with something missing from her eyes.

The stairs took me out in my Dr. Scholl’s sandals – clomp, clomp, clomp – and my platform shoes – clonk, clonk, clonk – and my Jox sneakers (without a sound). Coming home after curfew, I would slip back up them as quietly as I could, but once one child has been lost her parents will never sleep soundly again.

And all the while, those white Barbie sandals lay underneath the steps. They were there when I came home from college, and when I brought my husband-to-be home to meet my parents, and when my own boys, daredevils as they were, took turns jumping off the top step into the dirt.

So far as I know, they are still there, tiny artifacts of a childhood long gone. When the contractor rips out the steps, I wonder what he’ll say when I ask for an hour to sift in the dirt for a lost pair of Barbie doll shoes.

 

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The power of ‘Little Women’

 

I read “Little Women” for the first time at age 12. It was the Scholastic abridged edition with the pink cover – the four girls in an oval frame. A few years later I was ready for the long version.

It’s a cliché to say I identified with Jo. Of course I did. Every young girl is meant to, whether or not they dream of being a writer. It wasn’t about scribbling in the garret – it was being an independent, feisty young woman who isn’t afraid to defy authority or convention.

Although she’s not the eldest, Jo is the sisters’ leader – organizing their theatricals, boldly racing the boys, standing up to the icy Aunt March. In fact, she is more of a family leader than moralizing Marmee or their feckless father. Just as Louisa May Alcott did, Jo becomes the March wage earner, whether selling her stories or chopping off her hair.

I didn’t have a writer’s garret, although I knew what a garret was; instead, I wrote at an old waterfall vanity we’d picked up at a yard sale, sitting on a castoff piano stool. First, in tiny five-year diaries, later in five-subject notebooks I decorated with pictures of wildflowers sent by my Aunt Dot, the biology professor. From my bedroom window I could see my father’s sawmill and all of its comings and goings – trucks rumbling in with towers of logs, men tossing slabs into piles, sawdust flying through the air like snow.

I was the youngest, the Amy of the family, but I was nothing like Amy, being neither blonde nor insipidly vain. Besides, there were not four of us sisters, but three, or rather there had been. Our “Beth” already had died. Still, that part of the book came as a rude surprise, and I’m sure I cried when the fictional sister made her selfless exit – not dying so much as slinking away, afraid to be a nuisance.

Of course, my sisters had probably identified with Jo, too. Who wants to be sensible Meg, even if she does get to marry Mr. Brooke? And who would admit to being like self-centered Amy? No, Jo was the sister who had it all figured out.

Which made her fate all the more hard to accept. Not only does she not get the European trip with Aunt Carrol, she refuses the impassioned proposals of Laurie. Mr. Bhaer, the German professor horsing around with his nephews, seems like a poor substitute for the next-door neighbor we’ve expected her to marry practically from page one.

It would have made more sense for Jo to make good on her threat to become a literary old maid. Even at 12 I could sense authorial invention.

None of this ruined the book for me, however. To read “Little Women” is to enter a different world, in which a child’s powers of imagination, invention, and self-sufficiency are strong enough to confront the greatest of adult terrors. War, scarlet fever, poverty, and hunger are among the 19th-century scourges the four girls face, and they vanquish all of them in their fashion. Beth may die, but she does so bravely. And each of the girls in turn must conquer her moral failings – greed, vanity, and selfishness among them.

What is most remarkable about this is that all the problems, internal and external, are solved by the titular women. Consider the men in “Little Women”: Mr. March is missing for the first half of the book, moldering away in a Civil War hospital. Laurie’s grandfather is a crabby shadow, quickly melting in the presence of Beth’s godly goodness. Laurie, even when he marries Amy, is a perpetual boy; Mr. Bhaer is just another grandfatherly figure. The only real “man” would be Mr. Brooke, and he could hardly be said to be a paragon of dominance and authority.

It must have been reassuring to read “Little Women” that spring of sixth grade, in the drafty house where my mother fretted about money, swept up my father’s trail of sawdust, and refused to say my late sister’s name. I could take comfort that the March sisters, too, knew what it meant to dress in hand-me-downs and long for things they could not have. For a few hours, I could believe again in the type of childhood I thought I would have, where sisters trade clothes and put on plays and braid each other’s hair – and where a young girl writing at an old desk might someday make something of herself.

 

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