When I was 10, my mother gave me my first copy of “Little Women” in the middle of summer. It was a bright pink paperback with a monochrome drawing of a woman’s skirt and shoes, simple and minimalistic. As a little kid who was used to the detailed, flashy covers of “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” books, I was less than intrigued.
Eventually, I got past the cover. Even then, I found it difficult to be interested in the book. The language felt old and foreign, and the characters lived in a world that seemed completely different from mine in the 21st century. Why was I supposed to care about these sisters living in the 19th century if I had more contemporary books at my disposal?
As I continued to turn the pages, the novel started growing on me. Marmee and the March sisters were all heartfelt and familiar, but one character stood out to me the most: Jo March. I identified with her. She was the girl I’d always wanted to be: smart, bold and fiercely independent. Above all, she loved to read and write, just like I did.
Her journey to becoming a writer also fascinated me. In the book, Jo often scribbles away in her room, dressed in a black pinafore so she can carelessly wipe her ink-covered hands. As a young girl, she’s constantly working on stories, exploring the plethora of worlds she creates. Yet, at the same time, the writing process isn’t romanticized. When she goes to New York, Jo’s main motivation is money — she sells drama-filled sensation stories for her earnings. Plus, Jo faces all the normal things a female writer might struggle with. Publishers don’t take her seriously. Inspiration only comes to her in bursts. Mixed reviews frustrate her.
Somehow, none of this dissuaded me. In my free time, I wrote my own stories in my colorful, flowery notebooks and hoped that I would one day be like Jo.
Nine years after my mother gave me “Little Women,” I found myself stuck in a biography writing class. I was supposed to pick a subject for the course’s final paper, and initially chose Jane Austen. A writer, I figured, was a subject that I’d easily be interested in, and Austen was the first name I thought of. As I was writing my proposal paper, though, something felt off. Austen wasn’t right. For whatever reason, she just didn’t click with me.
I went back to the drawing board. I still liked the idea of writing about a writer, so I stuck with it. I researched more writers. After hours of mindless scrolling through brief lists and biographies, I landed on a name that resonated with me: Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women.”
To me, Alcott’s life was immediately interesting. Thanks to her Transcendentalist father, she grew up among the likes of Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. Even more interestingly, I found that Alcott hadn’t even wanted to write “Little Women” in the first place. The novel had actually been her editor’s idea, and she had believed the first chapters she’d written were boring — even “dull,” as she said in a letter to her editor. Yet, she continued when she realized her novel might have a larger purpose.
“Lively, simple books are very much needed for girls,” Alcott wrote in her journal, “and perhaps I can supply the need.”
With that, “Little Women” re-entered my life. Unlike the first time, I picked the book apart from the perspective of its author. I poured over every letter of Alcott’s that I could find to understand her own role in the story. In the end, I realized that I was drawn to Alcott in the same way I’d been drawn to Jo. They practically shared the same lifeblood. “Little Women,” after all, is semi-autobiographical. Louisa May Alcott’s life bleeds into Jo March’s life and vice versa — and both their lives have began to bleed into mine.
Nine years after I’d started writing in my notebooks, I knew how it felt to struggle with writing. I knew how it felt to not be taken seriously, or to dislike the words I’d written. I knew that as a young woman, this struggle would prove more difficult than it is for my male peers. Just as Jo had to fight for fair compensation and the respect of her work, women today still grapple with gaining recognition for their art — including Greta Gerwig, the director of the newest film adaptation of “Little Women,” who wasn’t even nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Director. But I also knew how it felt to love writing, to find joy in crafting lives on paper.
When I turned in my final biography, I bought myself a new copy of “Little Women” as a reward. It’s a light purple paperback and much more modern in appearance than my first one. As I held it in my hands, I felt much more connected to the book and the woman who created it.
At the beginning of a completely new decade, I sat in one of the cramped seats of the Annex in the Michigan Theater. On the screen, a film that I had anticipated watching since the trailer dropped was playing: “Little Women.” Unlike the seven other adaptations of the novel, Gerwig’s creation offers a different retelling of “Little Women” than the others — one that is nonchronological and one that draws on modern feminist themes, like women’s economic rights, independence and the idea that domesticity, is, in fact, its own feminist choice. Hers acts like a love letter to Alcott, writing and all the pains and joys that come with it.
Alcott still supplies the need. Her work resonates with readers to this day, thanks to the lively simplicity of the adventures of the March sisters. The years of penny pinching during the Civil War, dances with boys, lessons with Marmee, writing plays and stories for the family — they all tell raw truths about women through uncomplicated storytelling. This is arguably what makes “Little Women” so powerful: It doesn’t play into stereotypes, it doesn’t have to overdo the characters’ narratives and it doesn’t have to have some sweeping, dramatic feminist message. Its mere existence as a multidimensional dive into women’s lives makes it inherently meaningful and important.
The showing in the Annex was the third time I’d seen Gerwig’s “Little Women.” Each time I’ve seen it, it has seemed deeply personal, probably because I now have this tight, almost inexplicable bond to the story. It has become some kind of constant, timeless entity in my life, reminding me of why I write and why what I write is important. In some ways, it has become a part of me.