By Jan Turnquist
I love the opening lines of Little Women. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” may not be on a list of “Best Opening Lines,” but it is on my personal list of favorites. From the very start, this chapter offers a feeling of optimism and life even while introducing the four sisters in the midst of a difficult moment. This first chapter, “Playing Pilgrims,” establishes the personalities of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy as refreshingly real and imperfect. They tease and squabble as siblings do. But they are also warm companions in a home that is a safe refuge from a cold and dangerous world set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Right from the beginning the reader can experience that Little Women is a story based on love.
My experience at Orchard House has blended inexorably with my experience of the book itself. Because Little Women was written here, I am privileged to hear visitors’ stories that confirm the impact this autobiographical novel continues to have on generations of readers. I have witnessed beautiful moments amongst real-life siblings who identify with the March girls. One group of three sisters brought a stone to leave in our Little Women garden in memory of a lost sister.
Leaving Orchard House late one evening, I saw a petite Asian woman gazing at the House with teary eyes. In a thick Korean accent she asked if I worked there. I said “yes,” and inquired if she planned to tour the House. “Oh yes,” she answered. “Tomorrow my daughter will meet me here, but I couldn’t wait. I came straight from the Boston airport to see the House. You see, Little Women saved my life twice.” She explained that as a girl in Korea, she felt she was “nothing,” until she read Little Women. Jo showed her she need not conform to the constraints of others. She began to find her passion, gained self-esteem and became a college professor. Years later she was the mother of three girls. Suddenly without a husband (she did not explain why), she felt ashamed and dejected. She read Little Women again, this time focusing on Marmee as a single parent. Marmee’s strength in facing an uncertain future inspired the woman. She saw Marmee providing an anchor for her daughters and setting the example of doing good for others. In the very first chapter, the woman said she began to find strength for her own journey.
I continue to be amazed that Little Women seems to connect with every culture and has been translated into over 50 languages. Empress Michiko of Japan not only visited Orchard House but also invited me to visit her in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Thousands of Japanese visitors tour Orchard House each year, as do visitors from other countries, but people are surprised that Japanese readers — from a culture dramatically different from ours — would be so captivated by Little Women. I believe it’s because this book encourages us to be our authentic selves, appeals to our better nature to be compassionate and kind and to persevere. I believe it is because the book speaks to the human heart in the universal language of love.
Jan Turnquist is the Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, MA, where Little Women was written and set in 1868. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.