One of my favorite books from my childhood from the realm of
children’s literature is An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. I first read this novel when I was about 10
years old, in a 1960s edition with quirky, anachronistic illustrations that I
adored. This book was truly formative
for me; in fact, enough so that I have
often given it as a gift and have written an academic essay about it. (If you are interested, you can read the article here.)
Alcott provides us with Polly, a country girl in her early teens, who goes to spend time with family friends in Boston. Alcott set the novel in the time she was writing it, about 1870. Polly is at first entranced by the apparent glamour of city life. But as she spends more time there, she realizes that the children of this family—Fanny, Tom, and Maude—are not as happy and not as carefree as she and her siblings are. Fanny feels the pressure to grow up too fast, Tom doesn’t know how to interact with his father or his sisters, and Maude is spoiled and precocious. Alcott’s criticism is handled gently and thoughtfully. Polly grows to appreciate what she has, while trying to help her friends find fun and joy in life.
Alcott then returns to the same scene, a number of years later. Now Polly, Fanny, and Tom are all adults, and Maude is in her early teens. Polly goes through a similar process because she has to work to support herself (and, we find, to help her brother pay for college). Tom and Fanny are bored with the social milieu in which they find themselves, but can’t think of any alternatives. Alcott tips the scales by having their father go into bankruptcy, so that the family has to scale back. Everyone learns who their true friends are, and people’s strength of character is forced to surface.
As the title suggests, this book was seen as old-fashioned in its day, and it certainly can seem so now. But I find that its values of hard work, self-reliance, and true charity still resonate today. Children like to know that things will be all right, even in bad economic times. Perhaps, given the economic crisis we find ourselves in, children would find comfort in such a book.
Tags: alcott "an old-fashioned girl" children fiction
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