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    On Little Women

    November 17, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    I recently began reading Little Women aloud to my children during lunch. We usually have a lunch book going, but this is the first time I have dared to read…a “girl” book. For years I spent time building up a library of boy books for our oldest, knowing that I had a number of desirable treasures from my own youth hidden away for our girls. Recently, our four-year-old daughter became interested in longer works. Whereas previously she merely tolerated book-length read alouds, she suddenly was very obviously intrigued by Ralph Moody. This was how I decided to dare and venture into the world of girl books. I knew my son could handle it as long as it was well-written enough to be enjoyable, and I finally had a girl who might love the book like I do.

    Now, I say I love the book, but the fact remains that I haven’t been a very good friend over the years. This book has languished on my shelves since I was in my teens. I often told myself I should read it again, especially during Christmas time, but something always got in the way.

    I have spent most of the last seven years reading children’s books literature, a worthy genre, to be sure. And, due to the influence of Ambleside Online, the children and I are halfway through Little Pilgrim’s Progress, which we are reading in preparation for reading the real thing next year.

    If you know Little Women better than I knew it in my youth, then you can already see where this is going.

    I was shocked when we began the reading. I expected it to be like running across an old friend. I thought I remembered. But, you see, we can only remember what we truly knew and, it turns out, I didn’t know the book as well as I thought I did.

    And do you know why?

    Because I didn’t read Pilgrim’s Progress until my adulthood.

    This goes hand-in-hand with my notes from Dr. Taylor I posted last night. He said that we read the Good Books in order to read the Great Books. Reading, in other words, is preparation for reading. I would add that many good books are purposefully echoing the great books, only many of us {like me until about last Friday} never notice because we are wholly unfamiliar with the greatest works of humanity.

    So, you see, I had only a passing familiarity with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Now I feel I can love them for we share the same books.

    I vaguely remembered that the book began with overt references to Pilgrim’s Progress, but, having never read it, I didn’t see the parallels. The first chapter of Little Women is called Playing Pilgrims. In fact, my children recently began imitating this passage:

    Mrs. March broke the silence that followed Jo’s words, by saying in her cheery voice, “Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim’s Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.”

    “What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fighting Apollyon, and passing through the Valley where the hobgoblins were!” said Jo.

    “I liked the place where the bundles fell off and tumbled downstairs,” said Meg.

    “My favorite part was when we came out on the flat roof where our flowers and arbors and pretty things were, and all stood and sung for joy up there in the sunshine,” said Beth, smiling, as if that pleasant moment had come back to her.

    “I don’t remember much about it, except that I was afraid of the cellar and the dark entry, and always liked the cake and milk we had up at the top. If I wasn’t too old for such things, I’d rather like to play it over again,” said Amy, who began to talk of renouncing childish things at the mature age of twelve.

    “We are never too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before father comes home.”

    So, for those of us who are rather dim, Alcott spells it out. The girls used to play Pilgrim’s Progress, and now their mother wants them to do it in real life.

    Because I had never read the book, I couldn’t fully appreciate Little Women. Here are some chapter titles which are direct references to Bunyan: Burdens {those things that fall off your back when you encounter the Cross}, Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful {a place where pilgrims can rest and be refreshed, a picture of the church meeting place}, Amy’s Valley of Humiliation {where Christian fights and defeats Apollyon who, in the children’s version, is aptly named “Self”}, Jo Meets Apollyon, Meg Goes to Vanity Fair {this is the city built on either side of the King’s Highway which serves to distract the King’s pilgrims with fun, keeping them from traveling to the Celestial City}, Little Faithful {Christian’s beloved friend who serves the King unto martyrdom}, Pleasant Meadows {which I am guessing is a reference to Immanuel’s Land in the Delectable Mountains}, and The Valley of the Shadow {through which all pilgrims must travel upon the King’s Highway, and in which they are comforted by the 23rd Psalm}.

    And so we see that the entire book is actually a pilgrimage. When we read it through this lens, we see the beauty of Alcott’s ability to take the heavenly metaphors of Bunyan and bring them back down to earth in the form of four faithful little women.

    What is remarkable to me is watching my children eat up this book. Whereas I read it in the same manner I read my multitude of Baby-Sitter’s Club books, my children immediately latched on to the similarities to Bunyan.

    I was delighted to see them traveling the backyard with burdens on their backs, letting them fall, just like the March girls did once upon a time, when they met the Cross.

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts December 4, 2009 at 5:30 pm


    I have to tell you that I usually dislike children’s versions because I think they have butchered the original. However, Little Pilgrim’s Progress is just wonderful. The author has managed to preserve the plot, preserve the soul, and write well, but in a way modern children can better understand. It is a great step into reading the original for those of us who feel we need the step!

  • Reply Rachel R. November 27, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    I didn’t realize this, either. Wow.

    I had great difficulty with Pilgrim’s Progress. I don’t follow a story well that has character names in that style; I need real names. Terrible, I know. But I finally managed to make it through the whole book, and so little of it sank in that I didn’t realize I’d read it.

    Maybe it’s time to break out the children’s version now that I have a daughter old enough to appreciate it. We can read it together.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 20, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Good idea Dawn! I always forget about librovox, but that’d be handy for sure!

  • Reply dawn November 20, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    PP is also available as an audiobook for download on librivox, I know my husband listened to it.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 18, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Mystie, I like that phrase: “grist for my reading mill.” So true! I hope that in giving my children mostly living books, I can avoid them having the sort of mental habits concerning reading that I had.

    Lynn, It’s going to be great! By the way…that is my biggest fear when buying Ambleside books every year: what if I accidently buy an abridged copy? I cannot tell you how much time I spend reading through the tiny details on Amazon or elsewhere, just to be sure.

    It is true about our kids living great lives. I was thinking about that this morning as I watched my son outside feeding our duck flock. He was so leisurely about it, feeding them a tiny bit at a time. Actually, he was probably torturing them, but still…it suddenly struck me that I could be yelling out the door to hurry up because he had to be at school in 20 minutes and wasn’t going to make it at that pace. These kids, if we do it right, get to learn to savor life, and not just on summer vacation. I hope they realize they are blessed when all is said and done.

    Brandy, I am so serious: try to get your hands on the children’s version and read it first. I do this with Shakespeare, too. I find that reading some of these books is sort of like going to a musical: knowing the storylines first helps. Then you can enjoy the beauty of it rather than worrying about figuring out the plot. It also helps your mind mentally translate the older English words. Seriously. It helps. The first time I tried to read Pilgrim’s Progress was very frustrating for me, too.

  • Reply Brandy November 18, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    I must admit … I’ve never read Pilgrim’s Progress. We own it and my husband has read it, but I got a little intimidated when I tried to read it a few years ago.

    My husband’s been telling me for awhile that I need to read it.

    I’m thinking about going ahead and diggin’ in once I finish the stack of books I need to review.

  • Reply Lynn B. November 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Mystie, Justin and I just finished Pilgrim’s Progress last week, and after Thanksgiving we will begin Little Women. You have managed to get me quite enthused. I love to be enthused, so thank you. 🙂

    I spent the bulk of my life thinking that I had read Little Women. Imagine my sinking despair when, as my daughters began reading it for AO, I realized that my childhood copy was abridged! Wayyy abridged.


    And then the girls both really, really wanted to read it by themselves rather than have me read it aloud to them. I said, “Fine.” So I missed it again. Then the girls “played Marches,” as they called it, constantly, daily, for YEARS. I still never got around to reading it. I was kinda Marched out, to be honest.

    So I’m really looking forward to reading it for real with Justin, especially now that we’ve just finished PP. I didn’t get all those references out that stinking abridged copy, for sure, and then I didn’t read Bunyan until I was in my late thirties. Such travesties. But now I’m in for a belated treat.

    Our kids have no idea what great lives they’re having. Haha!

  • Reply Mystie November 17, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    “Whereas I read it in the same manner I read my multitude of Baby-Sitter’s Club books,”

    Yes, that was me, too. I read plenty of good books, but they were all alike with the twaddle, grist for my reading mill. 🙂

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