Desert Isle Keeper
So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix
The best literary retellings take us to new places and bring new worlds to light. So Many Beginnings does a beautiful job of applying the basic background of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and adding a whole new layer of emotions and experiences to it. I have read many retellings of the story, but this stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The March family – Amethyst (called Amy), Meg, Bethlehem (called Beth) and Joanna (Jo) and their mother Mammy (or Margaret) – are living on the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island in North Carolina in the thick of the Civil War in 1863. Meg works at a missionary school teaching newly arrived freedmen while dreaming of making a family of her own, and Joanna works building houses for new arrivals and is a fiery letter writer. Amy – the strong-willed youngest – is a dancer who dreams of life outside the bosom of the family, and Beth, a seamstress, searches for a greater purpose to her life even as she becomes increasingly physically ill. Papa – who left the colony to learn necessary skills from another freedman’s colony in Mississippi – has joined up with the Union army, and they all worry about and miss him terribly.
News that a reporter from Philadelphia is set to arrive spreads through the colony; Joseph Williams is there to report upon life on Roanoke, and Mammy soon explains he’s about to become their dinner guest. Joseph and Meg begin to fall in love, while Jo meets Loren – Lore being his preferred nickname, but she soon dubs him “Lorie” – who now lives in the house which had been the plantation where the Marches were kept enslaved. Lorie yearns for a better place far from the shadow of white Union encampments, while Jo – who writes impassioned letters defending the colony – only wants to stay on Roanoke and make it better. Meg is soon bitterly disappointed, while Jo finds herself at loggerheads with Lorie.
When a missionary woman name Constance offers to send Amy to a dancing school in Boston, Mammy and the rest of the family must conquer their fear that separation will result in the girls being kidnapped back into slavery.
There’s something absorbing about So Many Beginnings that will teach many children things they likely have never thought about or knew about slavery and the Civil War at the same time as it will also touch their hearts and introduce them to some unforgettable characters. The March’s family relationship, the center of any Little Women retelling, is gorgeously rendered, the bond between all four sisters and their mother incredibly well realised.
The book is wonderfully frank and truthful about the nightmarish, trauma-inducing horrors of slavery, how the Marches have adjusted to life in the Freedman’s Colony, and what memories they still carry in their hearts of the truly gutting things they have seen and experienced. The intergenerational trauma here is wholeheartedly realistic and naturally harrowing, and the way the book explores it leaves you rooting for the Marches to survive and thrive. Just because white people are nice to them – or because they’re union soldiers, or because they work with the Marches in the missionary school – does not mean the March girls respect them or trust them.
Morrow’s Jo is perfect – passionate and strong of soul. Enslaved while a child, she refused to speak until she was alone with her family, when she would let pour forth the truth of the violence done to herself and the others she knew; now free, she is a passionate orator who cannot be silenced. I loved her.
Meg is particularly touching as she struggles with flashbacks and memories of being the possession of a rich white girl, her forced companion from childhood on, with whom she had to fake friendship in order to save her life and the lives of her family. The capriciousness of this rich child’s whims in manipulating the life of Meg and her family is ghastly; that it happened too often in the real world as families were ripped apart and taken to other plantations should be strongly impressed upon young readers. Meg’s simple dream is important to her – that it comes true will make the reader smile.
I loved Amy’s free-spirited determination to achieve her dream; she has a child’s persistence and a dancer’s will.
And Beth – who finds purpose of her own, in spite of it all – is allowed to live and thrive instead of meeting a sad end. I loved her relationship with Amy, and how it contrasts with Jo’s relationship with her siblings, and Meg’s feelings about being the eldest.
But most touching of all is Margaret March, who has seen horror untold, and still deals with the disrespectful behavior of white people toward her. She lives in fear that her family will be overrun by the Confederate army, ripped apart, tortured and killed; that her daughters want to go out into the world and have lives of their own holds a palpable terror for her.
As for the romance, Laurie/Jo shippers will be pleased with this version of canon for multiple reasons. The way Meg meets her intended is delightful; I will not spoil it, but I will say that the romance is warm and satisfying. The March progenitors, meanwhile, deal with the distance, their fears, the weight of their values versus the love they have for their family.
So Many Beginnings is a wonderful book – heartbreaking, enlivening, and delightful in turns. It comes with a strong recommendation.