Little Women Remixed, But Not Reimagined

Sep 12, 2021
Originally published on September 12, 2021 1:35 pm

Bethany C. Morrow already had several books in different genres published when she was asked to consider another: a re-envisioning of the beloved classic Little Women. She agreed, on one condition — her book would not reimagine anything. "I know that as soon as I make the March sisters Black girls, I am not reimagining Little Women," she said, "I'm telling a completely different story."

Which the title indicates: So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix. Morrow, who is African American, wasn't interested in tweaking Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel about four sisters in mid-1800s New England. She wanted to upend it entirely. And she did.

Author Bethany C. Morrow.
Courtesy of Bethany C. Morrow

Whereas in Alcott's original tale, the Civil War was a background part of the plot, in So Many Beginnings, the war and its aftermath are central to the March family's lives. The March girls and their mother (Marmee in the original, Mammy in Morrow's version) are not merely sepia-toned versions of Alcott's characters; they are their own people, with concerns that sometimes overlap with the Alcott characters, and sometimes go in very different directions.

I began by asking Morrow, a sociologist by training, whether she'd been a long-time Little Women devotee, and her answer surprised me. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


Were you one of those people who read Little Women over and over when you were young, and was that part of the reason you agreed to write your new book?

I want to start by saying I have no recollection of reading the original.

Seriously? And you didn't read it before you started writing?

I had no intention of reading it. As I told the editor, it would not matter. I am writing a story about four Black girls in 1863. It does not matter what a group of white girls was doing; that has no bearing on it. I will say that I, like a lot of people my age, was very in love with the 1994 film adaptation, so if there's any similarity, I would expect it to be closer to a couple of elements from that film. Basically, Little Women is considered historical fiction, but as a Black woman, I have been excluded from that narrative. It seems like the kind of property that no matter how many times it's revisited, it's the same. It's for white girls.

Still, some of the things in this new book, you kept the same. There are four sisters. Their mother is their moral compass, their dad is away at war. And there's a really cute family friend, a boy named Lorie, who figures into the story. Meg is a teacher, Jo a writer, Beth a seamstress and Amy, the youngest, isn't anything yet—but she wants to be a dancer. Where do these Marches live?

I set my Little Women in the Roanoke Islands Freed Peoples' Colony in 1863, so immediately you were in a completely different part of the country.

So the March family was part of a community created post-emancipation, on the North Carolina shore. Was Roanoke Island the only such community?

There were several scattered throughout the country. One of the biggest, which is mentioned in the book, was Corinth, in Mississippi. It was a bit further ahead of Roanoke in terms of age and progress. And it was the equivalent of Black Wall Street: It was profitable. It did exactly what the Union claimed they hoped these colonies would do.

And yet Corinth failed as a Freed Peoples' Colony. Why?

There was no explanation for its demise, except that the Union Army decided to "evacuate" it, which is how you come to realize that you are not considered free. You are not considered a person. This is not considered your home. You were not considered to have a right to a home because the Union can just evacuate it. It can just pull the plug on your very existence. And that's what happened with Corinth — it was inexplicably evacuated when the Union encampment moved on.

It goes against the mythology of the North as Savior. Your book has a different depiction. You portray Union soldiers resenting being assigned to what they might call "n***** duty." Coercion of the freedmen and women for labor at little or no cost. Condescension from missionaries who came to teach the freed people. At one point Jo says to a missionary, "God forbid, you should do something for everybody here, but not talk to any of us!" Her outburst is seen as very impertinent: How dare she question their intentions? Freedpeople had opinions about the white people who were ostensibly helping them, but we hardly ever see this perspective reflected in history textbooks, even modern ones. Why?

Why do you think? Why would it be missing? How does it fit with our mythology? It doesn't! Truth does not work with our mythology. As a Black child, you would think that we didn't exist until enslavement. And after enslavement, we didn't exist again until the civil rights movement.

You also have an unsparing view of abolition. Talk about that a bit.

I really, desperately, wanted to break the mythology around the word and the title "abolitionist." Because we have just flattened these words to be synonymous with, again, these archetypes that are not usually accurate. Abolitionists, even so-called Christian abolitionists, were concerned with divesting from the repugnant sea of enslavement. Not with the equality and liberation of Black Americans. Expressly not.

That's where you start getting things like the American Colonization Society, colonizing and establishing Liberia because they thought, "OK, let's stop enslavement because it's a moral stain on white Americans. But once we do that, we have to get rid of these black people."

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was how the March family treated the youngest daughter, Amy. Everyone had assigned work to do to keep the household running, but not Amy. Mammy refused to have her do chores; she said, "Let her be a child." Amy's so young that she has no knowledge of what it means to be in bondage. And the family wants to keep it that way.

I don't place the burden of eradicating white supremacy on the victims of white supremacy. But what I do say is the way that we choose to raise our children, the way that we choose to love our children, is our choice. That is important, and I refuse -- I refuse — to be the first person to break my child's heart.

Your book is being marketed as children's or young people's literature, but you tackled a number of difficult subjects—what it means to be owned. The blithe carelessness of some white people, even well-intentioned ones, toward the people they owned. Why do you think young people need to be reading about these things?

I'm not sure at what age we should start telling the truth. But I would propose that it's immediately.

You've made a book that's steeped in history—some of it traumatic—that still resonates right now. Did you do that on purpose?

It was horrible and wonderful writing this book. I adored it — it was one of the easiest things to come out of me in terms of the writing process. But it was debilitating every time I remembered, "This is set in 1863." And it didn't feel like it. But the amazing juxtaposition of this book, I think, is that it deals with such terrorism and such horror and is also the gentlest story I've ever written. Because I'm focused on the family, I'm focused on these sisters, I'm focused on the love that they have for each other. And that makes a story rich with joy and love and just wonderful personal interior moments. But dealing with the context and realizing that in 2021, I don't feel removed from this at all, was very difficult.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Joanna March is passionate and very good with words, yet as a young girl, she trained herself to keep her thoughts to herself and her family.

BETHANY C MORROW: (Reading) Unless she was alone with Papa and Mammy or Meg and Beth, she'd rarely said a word as a child. She certainly did not speak to white people. They mostly assumed her mute as a result and thought very little of poor Meg, whom they'd made keep their daughter company during lessons, pretending to teach those lessons to her younger sister, who was clearly incapable of learning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joanna held her tongue during her family's enslavement, but in Bethany C. Morrow's new novel, she employs her sharp wit and her ink-stained fingers to help the March family build a new life. The book is called "So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix," and Bethany C. Morrow joins us now to talk about it. Hello.

MORROW: Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you first come to know "Little Women"? Did you read Louisa May Alcott's book first or see the many movies based on her book?

MORROW: I did not. I don't have any memory of reading "Little Women," but I did watch the 1994 Winona Ryder adaptation on a pretty regular basis. My family was very, very into that movie.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, your story begins in a free people's colony in North Carolina under the protection of Union soldiers, where free Black people are establishing a community. And it's based on a real place.

MORROW: Yes, it is based on the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, as it was called. I did a lot of research, primarily with Patricia C. Click's "Time Full Of Trial," which deals with the entire life span, the unfortunately short life span of the freed people colony. But it also talks a lot about the other freed people colonies throughout the United States. And I felt like it was an extremely important place to begin this story. It was just the perfect setting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In your book, there's this theme of sisterhood, of family, you know, in the same way that it is there in the original. But obviously, it has a different resonance because when we talk about the history of how families were separated under slavery, the bonds of family means something new.

MORROW: Absolutely. And it's something that I deal with not just in enslavement because it's something that has been a campaign in the United States against Black American family structures from the very beginning and continues. At the time, it of course was very normal, unfortunately, for families to be completely separated from each other, sold off to different areas and making it impossible to really have that genealogy intact.

It's also why I chose to have Amy, the youngest in the family, the found family. And so she wasn't biologically born into the March family. I felt that that was a realistic interpretation for a Black American family at the time. And the number of us who have to this day, we - what we consider family goes far beyond the bonds of genetics and biology because of this history that we share.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's one thing that you do in this book, which is a lot of the stuff to do with the period of enslavement are in flashbacks, you know, Meg remembering her experience as you write of being a polite plaything for the spoiled daughter of a wealthy white family. And, you know, there's also the sort of pressures that Jo faces when she wants to pursue her writing career. And there's an insistence that she write a slave narrative and a certain kind of one at that. But there isn't really a delving fully into the trauma. Did you decide that deliberately? Because a lot of "Little Women" is about joy and about purpose.

MORROW: It is. And also it is really important to remember that we have very limited representation, and presence isn't the same thing as representation. Representation centers around the Black American person, the Black American community. And it does not take into account constantly the white gaze. As soon as you allow people to be fully fleshed out, fully formed and within community especially, you're going to find that their lives have a lot more facets and aspects to it. And when you center the story on Black women, as I did in this book, you're going to see a lot of joy. You're going to see a lot of intimacy. You're going to see a lot of ambition, personality. And that happens when you, again, decenter the white gaze and you focus on the Black American character.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was that the draw to sort of re, you know, invent this particular story centering around these new characters that you've created?

MORROW: The draw to do this particular project is to challenge the canon and to challenge this - the fantasy that we consider historical fiction. And that was my purpose in writing "So Many Beginnings" and writing "So Many Beginnings" as a "Little Women" remix because I could have written this story and would have written this story with no connection whatsoever to "Little Women." The only universal aspect of "Little Women" was the familial love. The fact that people will see so much similarity between "So Many Beginnings" and "Little Women" despite the fact that I did not read "Little Women" tells you just how inundated and indoctrinated we are with that story and with what we consider, quote-unquote, "classics." And it gives an opportunity. And it's an opportunity that a lot of Black creatives are taking right now to take excavated history and authentic stories and come through the entry point of a beloved property that has gotten more than its due of attention.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bethany C. Morrow - her new book is called "So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix." Thank you so much.

MORROW: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "LITTLE WOMEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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