November Book

Recently I've been thinking about how strongly I associate books with particular months or times of the year.

Last week I shared my October Book and why it suited October. Previously, I talked about the surprises of rereading a book I always associated with September (which may more properly be a May book).

Which brings me to November, the month of my birthday.

Back in the Days of Yore, a calendar (printed! on paper!) was considered a wonderful and appropriate (and somewhat affordable) gift for a hard-to-buy family member--a father, say, or a brother (or three). In my experience, November gets the most boring pictures. The best are January (usually the cover), something stunning for a summer month (often July), and a cozy interior scene for December, which if not explicitly about Christmas is at least about indoor warmth, hot chocolate, and a roaring fire.

Of course, being me (a person who holds meaningless grudges against monolithic institutions and incoherent concepts long past the usefulness of the grudge, institution, and concept), I began to choose calendars based on their November pictures. If November was a dud, I didn't buy it. Take that, capitalist society!

For many years, I made calendars for my family from photos of this place, and I put the BEST picture in November. Which was sometimes harder than it sounds, because I used photos from that month in that month. And even in this place I love so dearly, November can provide a cold, grey stretch and a muted palette of grays and browns.

The general disrespect for November--a month to be hustled through, days to draw an X through before the end-of-year feasts and gift-giving--is why, as a young child, I was so pleased to read the beginning of this chapter of my November book, Little Women.

Jo March was also born in November! Set aside the fact that trouble does come for the March family, in a big way, in November. Good people were born in it--ambitious people, idealistic people, real people.

I've learned through the years that Little Women is often considered a December or Christmas story. Not for me--it's November, all the way through. And that didn't change in my most recent re-reading.

One element of the story that stands up the best, for me, is Alcott's distinction between wise resolutions made in a moment of inspiration, and the daily, everyday drudgery involved in carrying them out. That's November right there, in all her glory.

I found a few surprises this time through. The book is far more dense than I remembered, with lots of descriptions of everything from flowers (wild and in bouquets) to clothing (furbelows and tarlatans and tulle) to dancing in ballrooms to ruins in various European cities to buildings on the street in the business sections of US cities (Boston and New York, presumably). That element made this reading just a whole lot of fun.*

So much has been written about all the characters. A recent article in The New Yorker by Joan Acocella beautifully summarizes and analyzes all the interest in Alcott and her "story for girls" throughout the years, as well as some of the autobiographical details that are left out, hinted at, or slipped in.**

Like most little girls who a. wanted to write and b. never knew the proper thing to say in social occasions, I identified with Jo. Through the years I grew to appreciate her efforts to try, in various ways, to learn from the virtues her sisters possess. For example, when Amy, not Jo, is chosen to go to Europe, Jo says, "I'll take a leaf out of her book, and try not only to seem glad, but to be so, and not grudge her one minute of happiness; but it won't be easy, for it is a dreadful disappointment."

As a writer in a community of writers, being glad for others--truly being glad, not just seeming so--is a handy virtue (and not easy). 

This time around, I found kinship with different character--much to the surprise of this never-pregnant non-mother, it was Marmee. Yes, Marmee possesses extraordinary wisdom and has an uncanny ability to to provide comfort and sympathetic counsel to her daughters--not like me at all. But, despite the loving family gathered around her, she is relentlessly alone. As we all are, eventually. Imagine my shock when, after skipping ahead five years from Jo's marriage at 25, the family celebrates Marmee's 60th birthday. Just 60! How young she was, not even 40, at the beginning of the story.

Of course, it's impossible to read anything beloved from childhood without noticing uncomfortable erasures. Many stereotypes tossed out casually. Many voices simply not there. I thought of Hannah, perhaps because of Longbourn, by Jo Baker; and of the poor immigrant families who are the object of "charity," even for the also-poor March family; and the reasons for the Civil War that looms so large at the beginning of the book. I noticed that in this work, as in many of Alcott's stories, "going West" holds the answer to everything--but "the West" was not actually her romantic vision of it, and the people she blithely assume would "succeed" there were destroying whole peoples.

I can't defend all that, so I won't even try. I'm older now--not yet 60, but not far off, and closer to 60 than 35, to say nothing of Jo at 15 or 25 or 30. Like Marmee, I see the world with different eyes than the March girls. Now, I'm sorrowful, slightly more patient, and less (or perhaps differently) idealistic.

I have learned--am still learning--to see beauty in all the many shades of gray. I'm grateful for the chance to experience them in this re-reading of my November book.

* Also: horses, hats, and lots of rowing. What is not to love?
** I don't agree with Acocella's dismissal of Little Men and Jo's Boys, however, nor her boredom when Amy's European story and Meg's household trials become central after Beth's death. But that's OK. We all read with different eyes.