Book Review: Marmee by Sarah Miller

I cannot explain how happy this book makes me! Little Women is, far and away, my favorite novel and has been for the majority of my life. I have consumed this story in a myriad of different forms and have had so many surprising parallels between my own life and that of Jo March’s fictional one. But this book…oh, this book!

Here is our beloved Marmee’s soul laid out in her own journal entries. It was so brilliant to read the familiar plot points of Little Women but from Marmee’s particular perspective with all the hidden details that often fill a mother’s heart and mind. We are familiar with the Marmee who admitted to her spitting-image daughter Jo about her own struggles with her temper and indignation at the unfairness and injustices of the world. Furthermore, in this book, Miller expands upon those personal struggles and her journey through them and the life her beliefs and actions have built for her girls, her “little women”. Miller presents Margaret March as thoroughly human — loving, longing, struggling, working, and yearning. In the midst of “hoping and keeping busy”, we see the true needs of a woman, mother, wife, and friend presented in honest relief. Now a Marmee myself, I cried at portions, feeling indelibly seen and known in that particular capacity by this best of stories.

Before, I have always identified with Jo, but here in Miller’s well-researched and heartfully-rendered portrait, I blessedly saw my own heart reflected back at me in Marmee’s vulnerable humanity and the loving work of her life. I found myself yearning to be as lucky as John Brooke or Laurie or Birte Hummel, to be drawn into the warm circle of Marmee’s life.

It is also not only Marmee’s portrait that has been filled out by Miller’s pen. Grandfather Lawrence becomes a deeply-loving father figure that is sorely-needed, John Brooke a man thoroughly deserving of Meg and the Marches’ love (no matter Jo’s young protestations), and the Hummel family comes to rich life as full characters instead of a mere vehicle for lessons in kindness and sacrifice.

While Miller does indeed make some changes to this well-worn story, I found none of them to be detractors or detrimental to the effect of this gorgeous story. It is more than just a retelling, it is a new side of the much-beloved story of the March Family. Miller has drawn the stitches between the fictional Marches and the humanly real Alcotts tighter and embroidered them with stunning flourishes of growth, love, faith, hard work, and hope. I could not have asked for or even dreamed of a better novel with which to begin 2023. It has done my heart and soul unspeakable good and has become one that I will undoubtedly recommend over and over again. Thank you, Sarah Miller, for all your hope and hard work in producing a book of such feeling and skill. Thank you for giving me a story that shall find its way into my own Marmee’s hands as well as next to my childhood and anniversary editions of Little Women, in pride of place among my most cherished volumes. A place among my treasures, for that is what it is: a treasure.


My Storied January, Part 1

This has been, thus far, a storied January. In the space of the past two weeks, I have been filled to the proverbial brim by two of the most glorious tales, thus my “storied” January. I will begin here with tale the first.

On a recent, rare, free Sunday, I took myself on a date to the movies, alone, to finally dive deep into a childhood love. I settled myself into my seat and nervously waited through the previews (which I usually enjoy but that day they only tortured me by prolonging the excitement) for the beginning of Greta Gerwig’s long-anticipated adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Finally, with a flash of a red leather cover (reminiscent of Dickens’ first edition of A Christmas Carol), the title and author embossed in gold, I was dropped in behind Saoirse Ronan’s Jo March as she paused before the door to the Daily Volcano Press and the imposing Mr. Dashwood. And so it began.

For the next two hours and fifteen minutes, I cried, chided, laughed, fumed, and rejoiced, enthralled to be once again in the world of March Sisters and their beloved friends and family. I was alternately charmed by and incensed at Theodore Laurence, my darling Laurie, played so beautifully by the compelling Timothee Chalamet. And, in my aged prime of almost thirty-seven years, I am more certain than ever of Jo’s wisdom in turning him down. (The fact that I married my own teacher of German, as Jo married her sweet German professor, has absolutely nothing to do with this, by the way.) Jo’s lioness-fierce, protective love for her darling Beth was every bit as moving as it has always been, as was Beth’s own deep, unabashed love for her family and her abiding shyness, which made one want to fight off anyone who would dare to distress her dear, sweet self.

Emma Watson’s Meg was so honest that I adored her to new depths, a great surprise as Meg has never been a favorite character of mine. The struggles she faced between her desire for delicate, pretty things, the oft-harsh reality of her circumstances, and a bone-deep yearning to be content and good were so poignant and real and quintessentially Alcott that I was thrilled to my core. I could practically see Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl detaching herself from Meg’s inspired skirts to embark on her own stories and struggles along that similar path. I love Watson’s emotional range and the genuineness of feeling that she brought to Meg’s internal struggle. 

I left the movie theater glowing, though a pinprick of disappointment was there. Disappointment that I hadn’t carved out the time to take my own Marmee with me to see this film when she visited for Christmas. 

(Never fear, Marmee! I shall buy it and we shall cuddle up with kettle corn and blankets and tissues together when you visit later this year.) 

This is the first story in which I have gloried this January. It made my heart so very, very full, that time alone with this beloved tale. Not two days later, I found myself hovering over the end of another beautiful story, excited yet chagrined to turn the last few pages.  But that is a story for another day and another post. (Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long.)

Broadway Dreams

Singing through Broadway tunes on my Pandora channel today and it got me thinking about my “Broadway dreams”, what I would love to do, given the chance (and the talent).

*Playing Lucy in a production of Jekyll & Hyde. It was the first musical I ever saw live in a theatre and my college was the first to produce it after it closed on Broadway/off-Broadway. It remains my absolute favorite to this day. Singing songs like “Nobody Knows Who I Am” and “Bring On the Men” always gets my blood going, and “A New Life” coaxes a power from my throat that I always think I have lost.

*Performing “The Cell Block Tango” from Chicago. I love that song, especially the way it is done in the film. The fearlessness of the women in their dance and their emotion, it’s like sheer power leaks out from them every time I watch that performance.

*Playing Jo in Little Women. I know that the show did not do as well as hoped but Sutton Foster’s voice and the beauty of the songs still stir love in my heart, and echo my private little heart’s hope of being astonishing one of these days. And “Some Things Are Meant to Be” will always break my heart and make me sob.

*Dancing the “El Tango de Roxanne” from Moulin Rouge. I want to dance that dance, that’s really all there is to it. I want to dress in a corset, feel the power of the dance down through my feet and the grace and daring of moving in such gorgeous tandem.


“Nesting with Alcott”

If anyone were to ask me who my favorite character ever is, I would have to say Josephine “Jo” March, from Alcott’s Little Women.

Over the past day or so, I have been seized by the desire to have as many of my Louisa May Alcott books by my bedside as my poor little nightstand can handle. On there now, I have Alcott’s biography and journals, Behind a Mask & Other StoriesA Whisper in the DarkFrom Jo March’s AtticAlternative AlcottUnder the LilacsEight CousinsRose in Bloom, and The Inheritance. An Old-Fashioned Girl is sitting here on the arm of the couch next to me and my large hardback volume of Little Women is on the shelf above my head. I have read all of these books at least half a dozen times, some of them at full dozen at the very least.

I was gifted with my first copy of the 1990s film “Little Women” when I was but twelve years old, for Christmas. I fell in love with the March Girls, with Marmee (which is what I call my mother to this day, seventeen years later, and have gotten other people to refer to her as such), with Laurie, with Jo’s stories and determination to be a “great writer and earn barrels of money”. I have been blessed and excited to even have some parallel experiences with Jo in my life, such as selling my first story for $5.00 and marrying a teacher of German (instead of a German professor). Jo has always inspired me and she will always be my favorite.

Alcott’s books have always brought me joy. I remember when my mother put a copy of The Inheritance into my hands as a surprise, Alcott’s first novel written as a teenager and unpublished until that year. I was overjoyed and sat down to read it right then. Since then, I read that sweet little book about goodness and purity whenever I need a reminder of what is important in life. Just as I cry and remember my family losses when I read of Beth March’s quiet, patient, loving life and gentle departure from this world and resolve to live so that those gone would have been proud of me. Eight Cousins allows me to live, vicariously, through Rose. I have always dreamt of having brothers, especially those who were kind and loving. Boys whom I could love and care for as family. I was gifted with those in the form of God-sent male friends in college, and I am ever thankful for them. An Old-Fashioned Girl reminds me that there is nothing wrong with being a simple person with simple tastes and to have hands that are always willing to do for and encourage others, whether they notice it or not, appreciate it or not.

These are the books I grab when I need something to feed my soul, something to lift my spirits and give me hope and a smile. When I need invigorating, I pick Alcott’s “other” stories. Her sensation pieces, her “blood-and-thunder” tales. I was absolutely fascinated when my mother returned from a trip visiting her friends and gave me Behind a Mask & Other Stories (you can easily see who feeds my obsession). I read it and re-read it to make sure I hadn’t missed anything in the mysteries of these stories. My favorite collection of these sensation stories, however, is the now-out-of-print From Jo March’s Attic. I love “My Mysterious Mademoiselle”, “Which Wins”, and “The Countess Varazoff”. I actually ended up writing my thesis for my Masters of Arts in Literature on body theory as utilized by Alcott in her stories Behind a Mask” and Betrayed by a Buckle” to call for a reform of women’s rights and the constructs of what it meant to be a “proper woman in her proper place”. It was a joy to use two stories that I have treasured all my life, as well as Alcott’s strong views on equality and femininity, to produce a work that I dare to think she might have agreed with if she were alive to read it.

Alcott is imprinted on my brain, my emotions, and my heart, and she will always be. I would not have it any other way. And may I someday be a Jo, a Rose, a Polly, an Edith, and embody those beautiful qualities that she wrote into these amazing characters who remain my dear friends to this day.

Perhaps, like Alcott, I may, someday, be able to echo the lyrics that Jo sings in the Broadway staging of Little Women:

Here I go
And there’s no turning back
My great adventure has begun
I may be small
But I’ve got giant plans
To shine as greatly as the sun

I will blaze until I find my time and place
I will be fearless,
Surrendering modesty and grace
I will not disappear without a trace
I’ll shout and start a riot
Be anything but quiet
Christopher Columbus
I’ll be Astonishing

At Last