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Little Women Remixed, But Not Reimagined

The cover of Bethany C. Morrow's new book, <em>So Many Beginnings.</em>
Jonathan Barkat
The cover of Bethany C. Morrow's new book, So Many Beginnings.

Bethany C. Morrow already had several books in different genres published when she was asked to consider another: a re-envisioning of the beloved classic Little Women. She agreed, on one condition — her book would not reimagine anything. "I know that as soon as I make the March sisters Black girls, I am not reimagining Little Women," she said, "I'm telling a completely different story."

Which the title indicates: So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix. Morrow, who is African American, wasn't interested in tweaking Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel about four sisters in mid-1800s New England. She wanted to upend it entirely. And she did.

Author Bethany C. Morrow.
/ Courtesy of Bethany C. Morrow
Courtesy of Bethany C. Morrow
Author Bethany C. Morrow.

Whereas in Alcott's original tale, the Civil War was a background part of the plot, in So Many Beginnings, the war and its aftermath are central to the March family's lives. The March girls and their mother (Marmee in the original, Mammy in Morrow's version) are not merely sepia-toned versions of Alcott's characters; they are their own people, with concerns that sometimes overlap with the Alcott characters, and sometimes go in very different directions.

I began by asking Morrow, a sociologist by training, whether she'd been a long-time Little Women devotee, and her answer surprised me. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Were you one of those people who read Little Women over and over when you were young, and was that part of the reason you agreed to write your new book?

I want to start by saying I have no recollection of reading the original.

Seriously? And you didn't read it before you started writing?

I had no intention of reading it. As I told the editor, it would not matter. I am writing a story about four Black girls in 1863. It does not matter what a group of white girls was doing; that has no bearing on it. I will say that I, like a lot of people my age, was very in love with the 1994 film adaptation, so if there's any similarity, I would expect it to be closer to a couple of elements from that film. Basically, Little Women is considered historical fiction, but as a Black woman, I have been excluded from that narrative. It seems like the kind of property that no matter how many times it's revisited, it's the same. It's for white girls.

Still, some of the things in this new book, you kept the same. There are four sisters. Their mother is their moral compass, their dad is away at war. And there's a really cute family friend, a boy named Lorie, who figures into the story. Meg is a teacher, Jo a writer, Beth a seamstress and Amy, the youngest, isn't anything yet—but she wants to be a dancer. Where do these Marches live?

I set my Little Women in the Roanoke Islands Freed Peoples' Colony in 1863, so immediately you were in a completely different part of the country.

So the March family was part of a community created post-emancipation, on the North Carolina shore. Was Roanoke Island the only such community?

There were several scattered throughout the country. One of the biggest, which is mentioned in the book, was Corinth, in Mississippi. It was a bit further ahead of Roanoke in terms of age and progress. And it was the equivalent of Black Wall Street: It was profitable. It did exactly what the Union claimed they hoped these colonies would do.

And yet Corinth failed as a Freed Peoples' Colony. Why?

There was no explanation for its demise, except that the Union Army decided to "evacuate" it, which is how you come to realize that you are not considered free. You are not considered a person. This is not considered your home. You were not considered to have a right to a home because the Union can just evacuate it. It can just pull the plug on your very existence. And that's what happened with Corinth — it was inexplicably evacuated when the Union encampment moved on.

It goes against the mythology of the North as Savior. Your book has a different depiction. You portray Union soldiers resenting being assigned to what they might call "n***** duty." Coercion of the freedmen and women for labor at little or no cost. Condescension from missionaries who came to teach the freed people. At one point Jo says to a missionary, "God forbid, you should do something for everybody here, but not talk to any of us!" Her outburst is seen as very impertinent: How dare she question their intentions? Freedpeople had opinions about the white people who were ostensibly helping them, but we hardly ever see this perspective reflected in history textbooks, even modern ones. Why?

Why do you think? Why would it be missing? How does it fit with our mythology? It doesn't! Truth does not work with our mythology. As a Black child, you would think that we didn't exist until enslavement. And after enslavement, we didn't exist again until the civil rights movement.

You also have an unsparing view of abolition. Talk about that a bit.

I really, desperately, wanted to break the mythology around the word and the title "abolitionist." Because we have just flattened these words to be synonymous with, again, these archetypes that are not usually accurate. Abolitionists, even so-called Christian abolitionists, were concerned with divesting from the repugnant sea of enslavement. Not with the equality and liberation of Black Americans. Expressly not.

That's where you start getting things like the American Colonization Society, colonizing and establishing Liberia because they thought, "OK, let's stop enslavement because it's a moral stain on white Americans. But once we do that, we have to get rid of these black people."

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was how the March family treated the youngest daughter, Amy. Everyone had assigned work to do to keep the household running, but not Amy. Mammy refused to have her do chores; she said, "Let her be a child." Amy's so young that she has no knowledge of what it means to be in bondage. And the family wants to keep it that way.

I don't place the burden of eradicating white supremacy on the victims of white supremacy. But what I do say is the way that we choose to raise our children, the way that we choose to love our children, is our choice. That is important, and I refuse -- I refuse — to be the first person to break my child's heart.

Your book is being marketed as children's or young people's literature, but you tackled a number of difficult subjects—what it means to be owned. The blithe carelessness of some white people, even well-intentioned ones, toward the people they owned. Why do you think young people need to be reading about these things?

I'm not sure at what age we should start telling the truth. But I would propose that it's immediately.

You've made a book that's steeped in history—some of it traumatic—that still resonates right now. Did you do that on purpose?

It was horrible and wonderful writing this book. I adored it — it was one of the easiest things to come out of me in terms of the writing process. But it was debilitating every time I remembered, "This is set in 1863." And it didn't feel like it. But the amazing juxtaposition of this book, I think, is that it deals with such terrorism and such horror and is also the gentlest story I've ever written. Because I'm focused on the family, I'm focused on these sisters, I'm focused on the love that they have for each other. And that makes a story rich with joy and love and just wonderful personal interior moments. But dealing with the context and realizing that in 2021, I don't feel removed from this at all, was very difficult.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.