Little Women is both a hell of a piece of writing and an aspirational tale. Since the first printing of 2,000 sold out, making Louisa May Alcott the 19th-century Patti Smith, the title has been shorthand for a certain type of female idyll; sisters shaped by their bonds rather than by social pressure, convenience, or TikTok. Though I never articulated my approach to parenting in terms of the Marchs, it’s what I wanted for my three daughters when we decided to raise them on an island off the coast of Maine. And, more to the point, that novel became synonymous with what my daughters wanted for themselves.
That said, recreating a prototype isn’t easy. Little Women, a book about poverty-lite and the triumph of lithe spirits, now maps to an expensive reality.
My wife and I raised three daughters, EvaMarie, Olivia, and Isabelle, in Maine but neither of us are from there. She’s from Arizona and I grew up in Wisconsin. None of this was inevitable. When we moved to this island of 566 residents, we were hoping to provide our girls with a place to play and explore with the sort of freedom we didn’t think we could offer on the mainland. And that’s pretty much how it worked out. The girls, all roughly two years apart, became a solid social unit. For mostly better and sometimes worse, they became The Olson Girls.
With my girls’ first exposure to Little Women came a sort of self-consciousness. They saw themselves in something iconic and adopted it or adapted to it — it’s hard to say. I’m a bookseller so I’d like to say that our daughters discovered Little Women by pulling a copy off the shelf. Not so romantic. When they were six, eight, and 10, a good friend and sometimes sitter screened the 1994 version of Little Women starring Winona Ryder. The girls took to it, each reading the book as she reached an appropriate age and it became digestible. There were great debates over who was which character or what combination of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.
These debates passed the time, which is mostly what one does on a small, rural island. Like the Marchs, our girls were becoming expert at manufacturing their own fun. The house was filled with Disney Princess dresses and tiaras, props for the performances that became a common occurrence. Once, when the girls were three, five, and seven our furnace guy, Norm, was installing new radiators. One of the girls had received a gift of a Swan Lake performance in a box for her birthday. A CD with the music, tutus, programs, tickets, etc. The girls made a poster announcing the performance, filled in the date and time on the tickets, and invited Norm between his trips to and from the basement. Once Norm was seated, the show was underway.
I ran into Norm the other day. Fifteen years have passed. He brought it up.
The appeal of Little Women is, in part, that there is a specific geometry to the March family. There are angular affections, parallel loyalties, and vectored outcomes. As I was thinking about this essay, I pictured my daughters as the sides of a triangle made of three magnets. They were so tight and close growing up as “the girls,” there were times they were not recognized as individuals outside or home (or maybe even in it).
We did leave this rock, traveling a couple of times a year to see family in New York, Arizona, and Wisconsin. The girls went to Broadway shows. They had iPods, then phones, endless movies to watch and the broad view the Internet affords. Still, kids get bored. They got bored. And my wife and I had no inclination to fill those boredom gaps with extra planned activities. We treated boredom as their problem and took pleasure in watching them solve it.
They always did. With their friend, Yesha, they built “The Witches Circle” in the woods behind our house. A discarded table, random boards, bottles they found in the woods, other funky things they gleaned, toys, and a sign that still reads, “No boys but Dad and Mark”. Hours were spent in that space talking, building, and just hanging out. That hand-painted invitation was, for me, a profound invitation to a world to which most men are not granted access.
There is a witchiness to Little Women as well — sorority itself as a sort of mystical challenge to the status quo. My girls got that bit.
And, like the Marchs, our girls fought. We didn’t allow yelling — and prided ourselves on the fact that our household was largely conflict-free — but we were naive about the ways that sisters can get at each other. A few years ago, this came to light. There was some truth and minor reconciliation. My daughters fought by writing wicked little notes and slipping them under each others’ doors. They still have the notes. They kept the receipts.
And that’s how it goes with real intimacy. You hang on to everything.
The girls had to figure it out.
Our 21st-century island made intimacy inevitable and, in a sense, guaranteed a social experience not so different as the one that shaped the March girls growing up in 19th-century Concord. Living on an island means living in a bounded space. And it’s not so bad. The girls were able to have conversations with adults from an early age, their voice mattered — in such a small community, children are not afforded a walled-off space. Neighbors were always around. At 3 a.m. there are a dozen people I could call for help. And though we didn’t have a wealthy Mr. Laurence across the street offering up his piano for our daughters to play, we had Mrs. Hartley, who taught all three girls to play piano. Life imitates art. Art gets rebooted as life.
I know this all sounds idyllic if a bit claustrophobic. And I hope it was for the girls. For me, it was both freeing and difficult. Building a bookselling business on an island off the coast of Maine was not a brilliant plan. Even online sales were sporadic. Money worries became constant and I became determined to keep those concerns from the girls, who cleaned houses, babysat, gardened, and sold drawings on the porch of my bookstore, but never received an allowance. Of course, they knew. Specifically, they knew I wasn’t always present for them because I was too consumed by worry. I regret that. We talk about it now and I’m the first to acknowledge that proud, bookish and strapped — a very Robert March vibe — is no way to be.
Last year, while visiting Olivia in Germany, we went to a hotel restaurant that was serving a buffet. Asking the price didn’t really occur to me. The food was good, we had a wonderful time, and after numerous desserts the bill arrived. I picked it up, ballparking it at 150 euro; it was 250. Sharp intake of breath on my part and absolute silence around the table. Suddenly, we were home again, the furnace had quit and I couldn’t afford to pay the repair bill when it arrived. I told the girls it was fine (and it was), but I could see that they remembered when it hadn’t been.
This Christmas, when we moved Isabelle out of her dorm in Boston, her only request was to visit Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott’s home 40 minutes outside the city. We said yes because of course we did. The house is iconic, the interiors cramped and crooked. Isabelle’s joy in being there again was palpable, eyes wide, soaking it all in with barely a word. I know I am projecting, but she fit the space. It was a home for her, of sorts, and her sisters were just out and about.
Where are the girls now? Grown and gone. Eva, the oldest, is teaching English in rural Japan. Olivia, in the middle, is finishing a semester abroad in Germany before going back to college in Vermont. Isabelle, the youngest, is a freshman studying vocal performance in Maine. It took some pulling, but as they graduated from high school the girls found their own paths. They are making their ways in the world and though they don’t carry each others’ hand-me-downs, amulets, or vicious notes with them, it’s clear that they’ve internalized each other. They overlap in ways not all siblings do.
Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women has the March girls back in the spotlight and will have them haunting the Academy Awards in the same way they used to haunt our living room in the forms of Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, and Clare Danes. Girls will understand innately that these are aspirational characters and parents of the young and smartphone-addicted will understand the story to be a portrait of something lost. But is the all-American dream of Little Women still achievable? Still worth it?
Yes, but it’s hard as hell. I love who my girls became and do not long for the days when they were young and bored and bouncing off each other in the kitchen. I feel that we failed in some ways and succeeded in others but ultimately grounded them in an experience of family that I envy to some degree. When we eat together, we still start the meal — as we have for almost two decades now — with a song passed down through my wife’s family. We sing it, talk about the day, and plan for the future. The girls always have plans and opinions on each others’ plans. They have their own lives. They are complete alone and more complete together.
What more could a parent want?
Craig Olson is a rare book dealer and writer who focuses on the intersection between travel and books.