I find it particularly funny and fitting how this month's Classic Challenges have worked out together. The prompt chosen by November's Autumn for the month of April is Book Cover while the book I chose to read from Sarah Reads Too Much's list was Reread a Classic: Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom from Louisa May Alcott. "Why would that be funny?" you may ask. Well, these are my books:
April Book Cover Prompt: What are your first impressions as you look at the cover? Does the book cover have an aspect that reflects the character, setting, or plot of the novel? If you could have designed the book cover what would you have chosen?
I have known and loved these books for so long that it should be hard to remember my first impression of them -- but I do. I was staying with my grandmother for a few weeks in the summer. As summers in Arkansas are, it was very hot. I was sleeping in the coolest room in the house -- a porch-like addition to the front. She lived in a quaint old rock house, so the room was almost nothing but windows and rock walls. She had it overflowing with plants and a small brass bed; in a way it was like sleeping in my own secret garden. I finished reading whatever books I had brought with me in a matter of days, and was ready for something new. So, late one night after dinner and bath and the tucking-in process, my grandma walked into the room with four books. "These were mine when I was your age," she said. "They are very old, so you have to be very careful with them, but you can read them if you want to." In her hands were a 1930 American Book Company printing of Stories of Animals and Other Stories, a 1935 Little, Brown and Company printing of The Nature Activity Readers Book Two: The Outdoor Playhouse, a 1911 Little, Brown, and Company printing of Louisa May Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl, and a1927 Little, Brown and Company printing of Eight Cousins.
I remember being staggered by their age. I remember thinking the Louisa May Alcotts were such a lovely shade of blue, even with the stains. I had never held a hardback that felt like cloth before -- it made the books feel at home on the quilted bed. And (please forgive me, grandma) I remember wondering if the waxy black spots were from candles or oil lamps that my grandmother had used to read them. (I didn't realize at the time that just because one Grandmother was old enough to have lived without electricity didn't mean that they both were. Ahem.) I also remember thinking that, considering how...shall we say worn they looked, it was odd that she was so careful with them now.
It was many years later that I read something that captured so perfectly my feelings upon first holding those books. I think it was in a paperback copy of Little Women (but it also may have been Under the Lilacs or Little Men -- if you know, PLEASE tell me! I've googled for hours!) but in her Preface Louisa May Alcott said something along the lines of, "I hope to one day have my books be the dirtiest in the Library, for then I will know that children actually read and loved them." (Not a direct quote.) That is how I felt when I held those books for the first time -- I knew that, for the covers to have gotten that dirty, something really good had to be inside! They perfectly fit the story within: comfortable, welcoming, familiar, humble, but still dignified and deserving of respect. I could not design a more perfect cover.
Publication Date: 1927
Illustrator: Hattie Longstreet Price
Rose Campbell, tired and ill, has come to live at "The Aunt Hill" after the death of her beloved father. Six aunts fussing and fretting over her are bad enough, but what is a quiet 13-year-old girl to do with seven boisterous boy cousins?
In this sequel to Eight Cousins, Rose Campbell returns to the "Aunt Hill" after two years of traveling around the world. Suddenly, she is surrounded by male admirers, all expecting her to marry them. But before she marries anyone, Rose is determined to establish herself as an independent young woman. Besides, she suspects that some of her friends like her more for her money than for herself.
I think that in Eight Cousins we come as close to seeing what it would have been like to grow up as a child of the founders of the transcendentalist movement as Alcott ever writes. Rose comes to Uncle Alec as a sad, sick, spoiled, unhappy child. Having never had children of his own (and, excepting Aunt Jessie, being perpetually surrounded by what he would consider poor parenting), he -- with a little help from his sister-in-law Jessie -- decides to treat Rose's health and education as a grand experiment of sorts. As a child, I found Uncle Alec and Aunt Jessie to be amazingly calm, even-tempered, unfailingly awesome examples of parenthood. I wanted to be Aunt Jessie when I grew up. As an adult, and parent, I have now come to think of them as the epitome of the ideals expounded upon by the transcendentalists. Throughout both books there are echos of -- and occasionally direct references to -- the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and, of course, Amos Bronson Alcott. As an adult who has read their works, it is nice to spot the ideas in practice, if you will. I love the way quiet Archie and Phoebe fall in love over music. And I love the way Mac and Rose get to know each other through writing letters, discussing and reading the essays. I also love the roots of American Feminism that are visible -- advocating choice and control in one's own future, finding fulfillment in oneself before finding love, being an equal partner in relationships. The suffragette movement is not quite so visible as in say An Old Fashioned Girl, but I think that is more a product of the Campbell's wealth -- a young girl with an independent fortune and a guardian willing to hand over all control doesn't really have to fight for her independence.
It is hard to criticize what is for me the literary equivalent to chicken soup; but in trying to take an objective view, I do find a few problems. It is sad to see all these brothers of Uncle Alec missing all the time. I understand that they were sailors, Captains even, and a product of their times, but it is still sad to see all the absent fathers. Also, the fact that first cousins are marrying (and I find it romantic and cheer for them!) in here really squicks me out. (Yes, that is a very proper and technical term -- squick.) Additionally, I find the moralizing to be very heavy handed -- when Ms. Alcott gets her teeth into something, she just doesn't let go. Poor Charlie in Rose in Bloom, whose failings weren't really all that extreme, pays the ultimate price for his lack of perfection. It is especially sad considering how we left him at the end of Eight Cousins. (Were it not Louisa May Alcott, I might even accuse the author of character assassination in order to clear the way for Mac. But it is she, so I will not.) I think now that perhaps if I had not read quite so much Alcott as a child I wouldn't have been such a goody-goody perfectionist all the time! The books are delightful to read, but set some pretty impossible standards for children and adults alike.