There are, I think, comfort books as well as comfort foods. Certain books, especially when read in the copies we treasured from childhood, can take us to that time and place where we first encountered them.
I have written before about my childhood love of Louisa May Alcott, and my much treasured set of her books (gifted by a friend of my mother, who only had boys). These are books I have returned to repeatedly throughout my life. Now I have a set on my Nook, and have discovered that an added perk of an E-reader is that no one can tell what you are reading. Some might take the advantage to read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I'm reading kid-lit.
Indeed, Alcott was a groundbreaking writer in this regard, writing books written for children about realistic children, in a relatively non moralistic way.
Although I love the Little Women trilogy and the March Family my favorite Alcott books involve another family, the Campbells. They are the main characters of Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom.
I first discovered Eight Cousins in my early teens when my grandmother brought me a copy of the book on a visit to Concord. As it happened, I had eight cousins at the time, and my grandma wrote their names inside the front cover.
The premise of the first book was perfectly designed for a 12 year old girl: young Rose Campbell, newly orphaned, has been sent back to America from her native England to be brought up by her Uncle Alec. While she waits for her uncle to return from a sea voyage, who must contend with her 4 aunts and 2 great aunts, each of whom has definite ideas about what constitutes the proper upbringing of the young heiress. In addition to all the maternal guidance, she also has 7 boy cousins: Archie, Charlie, Mac, Steve, Will, Geordie and Jamie. Sheltered Rose is initially terrified of the boys, and wants nothing to do with them, but soon finds a friend and ally in a fellow orphan girl, Phoebe, who has come to work at the Campbell mansion.
The first book covers a year of Rose's life as Uncle Alec slowly draws her out of her shell and helps her become a healthy and happy young woman. Since Alec believes in exercise and activity, she spends more and more time with her cousins and their families, and becomes more involved in their successes, setbacks, and fights. At the end of the book, Rose chooses the family she wishes to remain with.
Rose in Bloom begins several years later, with Rose and Phoebe returning from a trip abroad to take their places as adults in the family and the world. Rose has decided to take up philanthropy as a profession, outraging family members who feel her fortune should be kept intact, and that tenement houses and orphanages are not fit places for a woman of breeding to be.
Most of the adults would like to see Rose marry one of her 3 eldest cousins, but Archie will fall in love elsewhere, Mac seems far to prickly to settle down with any woman, and Charlie, while charming and handsome, is a weak willed alcoholic totally spoiled by his mother, Aunt Clara.
As I mentioned, these were my favorite books when I was young. Alcott was great at weaving plots together, and I got totally caught up in the family dramas. By the end of the story the futures of most of the characters have been satisfactorily resolved, but Ms Alcott wasn't one to sugarcoat the ups and downs of life, and several major family tragedies compound events along the way (Nobody, but nobody could kill a character off like Louisa May). If Rose is not quite as vivid a personality as Jo March, she is in many ways a more typical young woman (minus the fortune) and the workings of the plot allow Ms Alcott to drop subtle hints about health, education, maturity, charity and other concerns for young women.
We take it for granted now that women will be doctors and members of other professions, that they can manage their own properties, that they will be just as well educated as the young men around them, that they needn't rush into marriage for the wrong reasons, or indeed marry at all; but these views were radical in Ms Alcott's time. Miss Alcott herself came from a rather unconventional family, but she spent much of her childhood in poverty, originally started writing to help support them, and never forgot where she came from and those who helped her along the way. All this resonated with me when I was young.
Even as a young girl, my favorite character was Mac, and I fervently hoped he would end up with Rose in the end. Mac is original and real, a man who dabbles in science, philosophy, medicine and poetry, and has a great interest in knowing all about the world around him. Louisa May Alcott knew Henry David Thoreau in her youth, and I always thought he was a model for Mac, with his love of nature and books and desire for independence.
Nothing gives me more pleasure as a reader to return to a book I loved when I was young, and love that book again. I return to these books repeatedly, because they still feel so true and honest, and because they take me back to that time when a few treasured books were my very best friends.
|This post is part of the A to Z challenge. I am writing each day about a favorite book for each letter of the alphabet. To read more about the challenge, and what other writers are doing, click on the link above.|