Monthly Archives: July 2011

Dear Louisa May Alcott,

You may  be surprised to learn that it was not your pre-chick lit blockbusterLittle Women featuring aspiring writer Jo March that moved me to think I too might someday write. Not that I didn’t love Little Women, but the tough and tomboyish Jo intimidated the hell out of the skinny, bespectacled and wimpy kid I was. And her saintly sibs and mother were totally alien to the only child of my overprotective mom who carried me up the stairs until I was six and who would have died before giving away my breakfast.

No, it was Eight Cousins, your novel in which Rose, a sickly, timid, and orphaned girl experiences a make-over courtesy of her benign guardian uncle and a gaggle of aunts and boy cousins that got me making up stories of my own. Throughout my childhood, I worried that my parents, who argued constantly,would divorce. If they did, I couldn’t imagine either of them having the wit or wherewithal to properly raise me. I pictured myself as good as orphaned, so it was beyond reassuring to see how the parentless Rose, living out my worst fantasy, survives and thrives. And she does this with the help of her globetrotting guardian, Uncle Alec, that sensible, seafaring physician with curly hair, laughing eyes, and trunks full of exotic gifts.

After reading Eight Cousins, I reassured myself by fabricating a future that turned my worst fantasy into a delightful prospect. I began to see my own father’s youngest brother, Uncle Charles, in a whole new way. Mustached and uniformed,my uncle Charles was dashing. And thanks to Uncle Sam and that pesky Hitler, Uncle Charles travelled the world. Like Rose’s guardian, my uncle sent me dolls and stuffed animals from abroad and, when home, he gifted me with pet ducklings, turtles, and finally, the long coveted puppy my mother feared would trigger my allergies. So what if my uncle changed jobs, addresses, and women every few years? I imagined that when my parents divorced, they’d give me to him and he would be my guardian.

Another part of Rose’s experience that encouraged me was how, with fresh air, exercise, and good company she becomes stronger, prettier, and better able to cope socially. Like a true Cinderella, she is rewarded for her innate goodness by her fairy goduncle with the kind of makeover of which I could only dream. And dream of it I did, and so did my ever vigilant mother. Thanks to eye surgery to uncross my eyes and a nose job, I too was eventually transformed, and the memory of Rose’s example legitimized my own entirely cosmetic makeover, an event that took place even though I was sorely lacking in the innate goodness department.

Well, that’s not entirely true. As a girl, I was frequently accused of having an overactive imagination. And now I thank you for nourishing that imagination and so helping me become a writer who, all these years later, makes up skinny orphans of her own and turns brothel madams into guardian angels.


Jane Isenberg


Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction