Little Men is the perfect summer read-aloud. It is a story that celebrates motherhood, life-long learning, community and relationships. Through the antics of the boys and girls and the gentle patience of Jo and Mr. Bauer we are introduced to a lovely story sure to please any age.
Little Men continues with the characters from Little Women, primarily focusing on Jo. Jo has always been my favorite character, the passionate writer always pushing against the norms. But while Little Women celebrates Jo’s passion and success as a writer, Little Men shows her deep compassion for others, which I don’t think we see so much in Little Women. She brings children into her home and school that no one else would, and she loves them just as passionately as she loved her stories.
One of the best story lines in the book is the character of Dan. He is a rowdy boy who shows up at the school one day thinking he can get what he needs from this place and then move on. The catch is, this place makes an impact on him in ways that no other place had before. He comes and goes and eventually the patient love of Jo wins out.
There’s a conversation between Dan and Demi where Demi is trying to explain how he keeps himself from doing wrong things. He describes his mind as a little room with his “soul as a little sort of creature with wings that lives in it.” The room is filled with shelves and drawers which he fills with his thoughts; both good and bad. He keeps the
good thoughts where he can see them and locks the bad thoughts away. On Sundays he talks with the little spirit that lives there, guiding it where to file things away and sometimes this little spirit is naughty and won’t listen, so Demi goes to his Grandpa for guidance. His Grandpa fills his mind with “nice things to file away into the drawers.”
What Alcott does so well in both Little Men and Little Women is so subtly, yet beautifully, describe situations that we all struggle with and give us ways to re-frame them.
Jo also takes in a young girl named Na,n who reminds her so much of herself as a girl: running through the woods and meadows, rough-housing with boys; all the things that young ladies are not to be doing. And yet again, she patiently loves Nan with all her faults and Nan slowly comes round.
But, in the stories of Dan and Nan, Jo is never attempting to change who they are at their core. It is really through her patient love and her knowing of them that she brings out of them who they really are. She meets Dan where he is and through that patient love she sees the things he cares for most and she feeds those loves. She gives him and Nan something to care for themselves. She lets them both learn from their mistakes, instead of modifying their lives so that they never fail. She gives them both responsibilities to build trust, and when they break that trust she doesn’t reject them. She grows self-esteem in them by showing them how to care for others, not by
navel gazing at themselves or filling them up with platitudes.
Ultimately what Jo does so well is she sees each of these children. She sees how Daisy is left out from the play with the boys and she puts together a special activity for her that does more than give Daisy something to do; the only way for her to really enjoy her new “toys” is to share them with others.
At the end of the book Jo is talking with Teddy and her father about the school. Her father encourages her to continue to believe in what she’s doing and to keep working for it and Jo replies:
“I’m not so ambitious as that, Father, I only want to give these children a home in which they can be taught the few simple things which will help to make life less hard to them when they go out to fight their battles in the world. Honesty, courage, industry, faith in God, their fellow creatures, and themselves; that is all I try for.”— Jo March
And her father in return adds,
“That is everything. Give them these helps, then let them go to work out their life as men and women; and whatever their success or failure is, I think they will remember and bless your efforts.”
As a mother of a rising high school senior, these are words that I take to heart. In these last months before we launch this young man, I find myself spiraling down into all the should-haves. This book is a great reminder of where to keep my focus. What I hope most of all these coming months is that I continue to see him for the young man that God is growing him into and, like Jo, I encourage him in that.