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

8 responses to “Dear Louisa May Alcott,

  1. Great one, Jane.

    I had a nose job as a kid, too–my parents thought I was too good looking!

  2. Carol Haynes

    You were my high school english teacher. I sent you a private note and hope that you receive it but my email is The high school was near Yale.

  3. Lovely piece, Jane –
    It’s wonderful how you swept the characters and events in 8 Cousins into your own young life and morphed them into your Uncle Charles et al, also using Alcott’s work as a springboard for your own development as a storyteller. A real tribute to Louisa May!

  4. Marion Katzive

    Eight Cousins made a big impression on me, too. To this day I think often about the riff on too tight shoes
    that limit a girl’s ability to move freely – Our heroine gives up fashionable button shoes and she is liberated. I watch my granddaughters swinging from playground bars with bicycle pants under their skirts for modesty and sturdy sneakers and I think about Rose. But, Jane, your blog inspired me to reread the Little Women trilogy – and there I saw the real beginning of my sense of myself as an independent person – and maybe even the career interest I’ve had in helping people create schools – especially schools that build the Eight Cousins lessons into the curriculum. Jo is Jo – but what about Josie who was willing to play house with Daisy but strode around the campus of the school (probably with great shoes) and became a physician – never married, of course. But Elaine Showalter’s end notes told me that Louisa wishes she hadn’t married off Jo either – and only did it because the publisher said so and she was able to create a great outsider like the professor. Of course Professor Baer was the icing on the cake and Under the Big Umbrella one of the most romantic chapters in literature so, in this case, I’m grateful for the push to write for the public. More to say about the books, but for now only thanks for the inspiration. Marion

    • Marion, so glad you revisited Alcott and in the company of Elaine Showalter! Interesting that Jo’s marriage was a publisher’s decree. And thanks for reminding me of the whole shoe issue. Ever since I caught a heel in the escaltor at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and fell down the whole thing, I’ve avoided heels. Alcott was way ahead of her time on that one as well as on many other feminist issues. No wonder she inspired you to pursue your own inspiring career as a lawyer working on behalf of children and educators.

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