By Katherine Paterson
Of course I wanted to be Jo. There’s nothing unusual about that. Is there a single woman’s writer of my generation that didn’t identify with her? Meg was dutiful and a bit prim, Amy was self-centered and a flibberty-gibbit. And Beth, well, of course we cried when she died, but, honestly, just between us, wasn’t she a bit tediously angelic? But Jo! She actually did things.
I remember coming into the house one day after a bout of street football with the neighborhood boys. In the living room my mother was entertaining at tea. As I listened to the cacophony of soprano voices I was struck with a sudden horror. I might have to grow up and be a woman. And all they did was talk.
In addition to her Tomboy ways, Jo was a great reader, which I certainly was, and a writer, which I didn’t think of myself as being, but wait! For Christmas she writes and stars in a melodrama. I did that in sixth grade.
Chapter One begins with Jo’s complaint, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and Chapter Two reveals the merriest of holidays.
It begins in a proper pious manner with a reminder of the true meaning of the holiday. Marmee has tucked a New Testament under each girl’s pillow and then she asks her hungry daughters to carry their Christmas breakfast to needy neighbors. Interestingly, this part of the chapter is closely based on an experience from Alcott’s own childhood when her father persuaded his family to give away their New Year’s breakfast. The moral here is apparent: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
But for those of us who dislike having our fiction over-salted with moralizing, Jo saves the day and the chapter with her operatic melodrama, playing both the loathsome villain and the swashbuckling hero, perhaps as an excuse to wear her beloved russet boots which no proper lady could ever be seen wearing on the street.
We readers are sitting at a remove from the tiny audience of girls in that upstairs room, so it’s all right for us to laugh at the earnest playwright and her cast. Alcott herself is laughing as she writes of Jo’s outlandish plot and dialogue, the makeshift costumes and fanciful scenery, the nervous actors playing multiple roles, the collapsing scenery that buries the actors if not the boots, and the folding bed that envelopes the audience mid-applause.
And there is a surprise happy ending to the day when virtue is rewarded with cake and ice cream. A merry Christmas indeed. Hurrah for Jo! Hurrah for Louisa!
A distinguished, acclaimed, and beloved writer of children’s literature, Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books. She has won the National Book Award twice (for The Master Puppeteer in 1977 and The Great Gilly Hopkins in 1979) and the Newbery Medal twice (for Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and Jacob Have I Loved in 1981).
From Merry’s Museum I (1868) 35-36. Complete text in Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Norton Critical Edition, Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein, editors, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) 541-543. See below for the original pages.