My Review on ‘Jo’s Boys’

Jo's Boys
Louisa May Alcott
2005

Written by Xuelin Yeong

Considering the fact that one of Fakhruddin’s previous post was about technology versus books, I guess I will start my post from that point.

Well, I am technically more of a bookworm than a techno geek. But technology turned out to be a help rather than a hindrance in my hobby. Having acquired a new handphone I was eager to explore its functions, and by chance, stumbled upon an application which allowed me to download and read certain e-books. From then on, I was often seen with my handphone in hand, and my eyes glued tight to the screen, much to the bewilderment of my classmates, who thought that I was busy messaging some mysterious personnel.

The books made available by the application are somewhat limited. Or, to be more exact, not all the books available were free; the most popular titles came with a fixed price. But the classics were free, and pretty soon my virtual bookshelf was filled with my favourite titles such as ‘Anne of Green Gables’, ‘Rilla of Ingleside’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, even ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and most recently, the ‘Little Women’ series by Louisa May Alcott.

Those who had read ‘Little Women’ would be familiar with the four March sisters– Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The second book in the series, sometimes known as ‘Good Wives’, sometimes simply as ‘Part 2’ was a follow-up on their respective lives, whereby the four sisters blossomed into capable and graceful young women, eventually finding love and romance in their lives, and in one sad case, left her short yet meaningful life behind to descend to the ‘Valley of the Shadow’ as quoted from the book.

The next book was entitled ‘Little Men’, and it was about Jo, whom, upon inheriting Plumfield, a stately estate from her deceased aunt, converted it into a school for boys. The third book, ‘Jo’s boys-and How They Turned Out’ was centered on the lives of the boys after they grew up. And that was the book that kept me company during the stressful and tiring exam week.

I will not elaborate further on the prequels to this book, for after not reading them for quite some time I have forgotten some major plots and storylines, and do not wish to mar this post with incomplete or incorrect facts. But from here onwards I have to assume that those reading this have already read, or at least, heard of ‘Little Women’ and ‘Little Men’, or else it may be hard to get an inkling of the storyline I’m about to present.

So, the boys at Plumfield have all grown up. Dan was exploring gold mines in San Francisco, Nat was aspiring to become a violinist, Demi had a temporary job as a reporter, and Tom was studying Medicine, not out of interest but merely for the sake of wooing his childhood sweetheart, Nan. Professor Bhaer’s nephews, Franz and Emil were well established in their respective careers, the former managing some business, the latter as a sailor who was promoted to become second mate of his ship. Jo’s sons were doing well too, Ted being labeled as ‘the lion’ due to his hyperactive and reckless nature, while his brother Rob was his exact opposite; thus known as ‘the lamb’.

Anyway all of the boys faced certain trials in their life, which polished their natures, brought out the good in them, and in some cases, made them stronger and more matured. But of all, Dan’s trials were the worse; he committed a crime by accident, and as a result, was sentenced to a year in prison along with hard labour. His sentence was an unbearable one, and he drew strength from several books bestowed upon him by Jo, and as well as a vision of Amy’s beautiful daughter; Bess. However his love was unrequited, as Bess was a well-bred and high-born young woman, while he was an ex-convict with a dark past.

In the end, all fared well for most of the boys, who found happiness and success by and by. Dan’s fate was a darker one; as while he was protecting the rights of the native Indians, he was shot and was laid to rest ‘with a lock of golden hair upon his breast, and a smile on his face’. Dan’s part in the novel, though not very long, was the part that made the deepest impression in my mind, and it stirred feelings of sympathy, as I wondered why couldn’t fate (or rather, the author’s hand) make Dan’s life easier, and perhaps grant him his well-deserved happiness. The things went through by the other boys seemed light and easy in contrast, as they soared through life with a little mishap or trouble here and there, and in the end, was ‘rewarded’ prettily in contrast with poor Dan. Dan’s fate added an element of darkness and tragedy to the otherwise light and cheerful plot.

It’s quite amazing how fictional characters in such books can really draw upon our imagination, as we picture them so vividly in our mind’s eye, feeling as if they are old comrades whom we have known for our entire lives. We smile at their joys, laugh at their jokes, and even shed a tear or two at their tragedies. In fact, I felt sad when the story ended with ‘let the music stop, the lights die out. And the curtain fall forever on the March family’. I felt as if I was saying goodbye to an old friend forever. Indeed I could re-read the book many times over, as I do for most of my favourite works, but it will be like reading old letters from a friend, without any new tidings from her. For the whole week the fictional ‘Plumfield’ was the place I sought refuge in when my studies became too dry, or my life became too monotonous to bear, and I would immediately escape into this fantasy world for a few minutes, eagerly absorbing every little thing the chapter has to offer, and for a moment, feeling carefree as I forget my own troubles, and enjoy this ‘vacation’ within the pages of the book—or rather, the screen of my handphone. It’s when everything is over when I heave a little sigh, put my handphone aside, remembering that all these were set in a past era, and the author, sadly, was dead for decades since, and she would not be penning anymore delightful works about her characters. Thus sometimes I find consolation in the works of contemporary authors, as it is still possible to receive news about their forthcoming works, visit their blogs, and even keep a close tab on their progress, eagerly counting the months before their next bestseller would hit the stores.

Overall, the book was an interesting read, especially for those whom appreciated this genre of books. Its storyline was pretty simple, down-to-earth, without plane crashes or haunting or murders or conspiracies of any sorts, but in spite of its simplicity, it manages to convey moral messages to its readers. Yes, in fact I admit that some parts seem like passages out of some moral book as the author delivers sermons on morality and ethics, either directly or through the lips of her characters. But although the book was written in such a different era, I find that the moral lessons are still applicable in our modern lives. My favourite part was where Mrs Jo gave advice to two of her formal pupils, who were caught up with the degrading entertainments which were considered ‘fashionable’ at that time. I couldn’t help but think about the importance of morals in our current society. How many of us would just fling all thoughts of morality or decorum aside, as we indulge in pleasures and pursuits just to win an approving nod or admiring gaze from our peers? How many would bend their principles just to ‘fit in’, and lose themselves in the process of trying to be ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’? And how many of us would hold fast to our beliefs and principles, regardless of whatever temptations life may throw at us?

Another point I really liked about this story is the parts on women’s rights. I won’t claim to know exactly the cultural and historical setting of the story, but so far I have inferred that the story was set during the turn of the century; when America was still in the process of building up, with miles of prairies and wastelands were still waiting to be developed. It was the era when women began to enjoy more liberties than permitted to their mothers and grandmothers. It was the time when education for women began to be taken seriously, and women were given a chance to stand side by side with their male counterparts in various fields, even in Medicine, as one of the characters, Nan, proved. The abilities of women began to be recognized, and the author reassured anxious young readers of her time, that the mental capability of a woman was no less than that of a man. Gladly, some of us modern women do not need that type of reassurance now, so confident are we in our abilities, though there are sadly some who are still confined to the traditional thinking, that girls are no better than guys. Well, forgive me for my feminist rants, but if I were a young girl in that era that happened to read that book, I would certainly be much inspired to believe in myself and look forward to a brighter future, made possible by education.

Alcott’s motives behind her novels are well presented through Jo’s character, whereby she disapproves of frivolous and sensational writing without any depth to it. Her books are written to amuse, and at the same time, advice the reader. It is no wonder that her books have made their way into the minds and hearts of many generations of readers, and the author’s name forever made sacred in the laurel wreathed halls of literature.

Although the adventures of the March family have come to an end, I am looking forward to read ‘Eight Cousins’ by the same author. It is about a girl who is sent to live with her seven cousins—all of them boys.

No doubt my classmates will see me next week, with my handphone in one hand and my eyes glued to the screen, and a distant, dreamy expression on my face as I slip out of this world into another one, constructed upon ideas and built up by words.

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