whom Rioux cites, her readers may well feel deeply connected to Jo; theymay have experienced, as Rioux asserts, that “Little Women has alwaysbeen read because its contradictions and complexities have allowed us toread it differently over time. It has grown with us, and we with it.”The truth of this claim, and the significance of Little Women to aspiringfemale writers, is further demonstrated through the four personal essaysthat comprise On Life, Death, and Little Women: March Sisters. Contemporary writers Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado,and Jane Smiley each take on one of the March sisters, considering howthat character’s experiences resonate with her own.
Each of the writers naturally expresses some affinity with Jo, thoughJenny Zhang, in “Does Genius Burn, Jo?” recalls initially despising thatcharacter. “Her ideals, her stubbornness, her independence, her utterlack of giving a fuck when it came to gender norms, everything aboutJo repulsed me.” As Zhang thinks about why she reacted so negatively—and conservatively—to the character, she draws parallels between herexperience as an only child, who emigrated from China to the US withher parents at age four, and Jo’s. Like Jo, Zhang faced constant pressureto conform to cultural expectations. And like Jo and Marmee—and herown mother—Zhang reacted to encroachments on her autonomy withanger that she was urged to repress. Zhang writes about the agony ofcoming of age as a member of a close-knit family, negotiating others’hopes and ambitions as well as her own. No longer repulsed by Jo, sherecognizes in the character kindred anxieties and ambivalence.
Kate Bolick describes herself, upon first reading Little Women, as aJo who longed to be a Meg: the assured older sister who has weatheredthe worst of adolescence. In her essay “Meg’s Frock Shock,” Bolick relatesto Meg’s experience of transgression and punishment at Sally Moffet’s ball. From the novel’sopening pages, Meg yearns for fine things buthas learned from her mother’s example to besatisfied with simplicity and economy. From her
March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women
Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado,and Jane Smiley. Library of America, 2019,
196 pp., $21.95 (hardcover)