Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Little Woman

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When I arrive at marching band camp to pick up my fourteen-year-old daughter Angela, the August heat and humidity have exacted their toll. Her two ponytails are straggly. Her cheeks have telltale pink streaks where she did not quite get the sunscreen. Aside from a perfunctory greeting, she is too tired to talk. She slumps in her seat, eyes closed, head back. We sit in companionable silence.

Almost. After a few minutes I hear a faint humming sound and see her feet stepping in rhythm on the floorboard, as if she were wearing Hans Christian Andersen's red shoes instead of last year's tatty cross-trainers. I suspect that her head is ringing with the second trumpet part, and that tonight she will dream of white gloves beating 4/4 time atop a scaffold.
Band camp gives Angela two weeks to learn the drill and music before school starts. A freshman and rookie marcher, she is all too aware of her missteps and cracked high notes. These ten days offer a chance to improve her skills as well as learn to hold her own within the group.

Band camp gives me many car trips across town alone with my teenage daughter, a rare treat in a family with two younger brothers. On the solitary half of these trips, I listen to audio books from the public library. Driving kids around can be tedious, but I never begrudge a missed stoplight when I am engaged in a great story.

During band camp I listened to Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's 1869 novel about four sisters -- Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March -- living in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. I first read Little Women when I was about ten years old. My fluency and vocabulary far exceeded my insight into the human condition: I read for characters and plot. That there might be more did not occur to me.

I remembered specific scenes -- Amy burning Jo's manuscript, Beth dying -- that had affected me deeply. What I did not remember from my childhood reading were the problems in the text. The narrator veers off into heavy-handed moralizing at the expense of plot. Some of the characters are saccharine and flat. Laurie -- Theodore Laurence, the Marches' neighbor -- seems immature and self-absorbed. Mrs. March is a saint, but she is not like any real mother I know, tired and distracted and sometimes unsure of herself. Beth is a shadow, even when she is alive. Meg demonstrates a little more will, but once she marries, she moves into a very dull world of failed jellies, unaffordable silks, and grating baby talk. Amy has spunk, mostly because she is brazenly selfish, but the more she outgrows her childish tantrums, the more lifeless she becomes.

I might have grown impatient with the story but for one saving grace. At its heart, a single incandescent character burns. Jo, the second daughter, speaks her mind, cuts her hair, and casts herself as the mustachioed heroes of her own plays. A thoroughly modern young woman, she doesn't give a rip about social conventions or propriety, and she dedicates herself to her literary ambitions without apology or self-consciousness. When Laurie proposes, she most unwillingly disappoints him; she cannot marry someone she does not love. Even when Jo does find a soul mate in Professor Bhaer, she tells him, "I have my duty, also, and my work. I couldn't enjoy myself if I neglected them even for you." When he offers Jo his empty hands, she clasps them under the umbrella, on her terms.

Aunt March deems Jo headstrong and incorrigible and unworthy of a grand tour of Europe. So be it. The other characters fade and age. Only Jo is immortal, vibrant and spry after 140 years, still capable of summoning readers to her attic. She is a heroine for all time, the kind of strong female protagonist I always wanted to be. The kind I wanted to share with my daughter.

The year Angela was eight, my mother gave her an Illustrated Junior Library copy of Little Women for Christmas. I knew Angela might be a little young to appreciate the story, but she had raced through most of the Newbery winners, even the older ones, and I assumed this book would be a welcome challenge. Even so, I offered to read it aloud with her. I wanted to share with her this story of a family with tensions, with problems, and with petty jealousies who manage -- sometimes in prickly ways -- to love each other.

Night after night we sat on her bed and I read. It did not take long to realize that her eyes, round as full moons for the Harry Potter books, now fluttered into the slimmest eyelash crescents for the March sisters. By the time we bushwhacked through the muslin skirts and freshly trimmed bonnets of Chapter Nine, "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair," I conceded defeat. The compelling drama I remembered was mired in antiquated language, dense sentences, and a lack of action. Angela was bored. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was more accessible to her than 1860's Concord, Massachusetts. Reluctantly, I placed Little Women back on the shelf, the bookmark like a forgotten sentinel between two pristine pages.

The next fall, a local university announced a forthcoming musical production of Little Women. In spite of my inauspicious attempt with the book, I offered to take Angela to the show. She was pleased at the prospect of a girls' night out, and even happier when I invited a friend and her daughter to join us. We made the night special. We dressed up and went to a restaurant where we dined outdoors on a rooftop patio. Flush with anticipation, we strolled into the theater and found our seats on the fifth row.

The production transported me back to my childhood, rich with untethered hopes and hours of creative time. I sniffled through the scene where Jo struggles alone in her attic to give voice to the great work that she knows is in her. For me, the scene evoked the tensions of full-time parenting and not-enough-time writing, of frantic Post-It notes to myself on the kitchen counter and late-night hours at the computer. I felt Jo's urgency, her sense of unrealized potential, as I never could have before. When the curtain closed, I saw my friend dab her cheeks. Our watery eyes met, and we laughed in mutual recognition. The girls looked at us, shrugged, and asked if we would buy them some Junior Mints.

It occurred to me as I bought the Junior Mints for the girls and a soundtrack for me that this story is not really for little girls; it is for little women. It is for all of us, of all ages, who still long to tap into the ambitions that throbbed within us in childhood. It is for all of us who raise daughters and sons and hope that they will burn brightly with their own incandescent gifts. It is for all of us who dream of astonishing the world.

August's scorching marching band camp yielded to September's golden afternoon practices and competitions. By October, the marchers wore mittens and warm caps to evening rehearsals and still shivered in the wind. The hours of practice paid off; at the end of the season, our school band was one of ten finalists in its class. Halloween weekend, my husband, two sons, and I went to the Indianapolis Colts' new indoor stadium to watch Angela compete in the Indiana Marching Band State Finals.

Our band marched onto the field in identical uniforms with stiff black collars and maroon gauntlets. Under the gleaming spotlights, the silver trumpets shone. I could pick Angela out of the crisp lineup only because I had memorized her position. Once I found it, I recognized the drape of the uniform over her body and the set of the plumed shako atop her neatly pinned bun. Shoulders squared, trumpet grasped firmly, she looked poised, perhaps a little nervous, but ready. Even before the music started, I caught my breath at the transformation from the summer's languid elbows and raggedy ponytails.

I locked my eyes on Angela. At the periphery, I had the vague impression of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" brought to life: marchers -- like dashes in a line -- spinning off one orbit and forming another. But I could see only Angela on the field before me, as if in the swirling constellation she were the brightest star, vibrant and pulsing. Astonishing, even.

I could not say these words out loud, there in the cheering section among all those other parents with their eyes locked on their own bright stars. I could only applaud wildly at the end, and beam at my daughter as she marched off the field, head high, gaze fixed ahead.

It is difficult to know which of the many experiences I offer -- intentionally or not -- will take hold in my children, will sink deep roots into their souls. I hope that these roots will include stories: timeless stories to fire the imagination, stories to inspire courage or compassion, stories to unsettle and comfort and share. Over time, a good story can do all these and more.

The following Saturday, our first in nearly three months without a marching band commitment, we did some long-overdue housecleaning. That morning I was scrubbing the stove when Angela carried her bed sheets through the kitchen, iPod clipped to her sweat pants. She removed the ear buds only to hear my mouthed question.

"My music?" she asked. "It's the sound track to Little Women."


Dana Haight Cattani has spent more than twenty years working or volunteering in schools in California, North Carolina, and Indiana. She is the author of A Classroom of One’s Own and co-author of A. P. Giannini: The Man with the Midas Touch. As an experienced elementary and high school teacher, she knows classrooms. As an educational researcher with a doctorate from Stanford University, she knows schools. As an ethnographer, she knows stories. As the writing mother of three school-age children, she knows (and loves) the sound of the school bus, both coming and going.


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