Previous in the series: Little Men.
Despite my best efforts to keep track of who was who in Little Men, I opened Jo’s Boys to a bewildering array of names. The events of the book were enough that I eventually figured out Tom, Stuffy and Josie, but I had to resort to Google to remind me of Jack, Dolly, Ned, Dick and Billy. Obviously, a school the size of Plumfield needs to be well peopled, but Louisa May Alcott may have tried to spread the attention too thinly between all these boys, as only some of them are sufficiently memorable.
‘I never can forget this — I hope it’s cured me; if it hasn’t, I am afraid I ain’t worth saving,’ answered Ted, pulling his own hair as the only way of expressing his deep remorse.
‘Yes, you are, my dear; I felt just so at fifteen when Amy was nearly drowned, and Marmee helped me as I’ll help you.’
Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott
As usual with Louisa May Alcott’s writing, it’s the characters who develop over the course of the novel that really stand out. In this case: Nat, Dan, Ted and Josie. Dan’s story is particularly heartbreaking, and while the ending is probably realistic, it feels like less than he deserved, especially in comparison to almost everyone else’s most-cherished desires coming true. That said, the relationship between Dan and Mrs Jo is enviable to the very last and is the greatest triumph of both these sequels.
A few quiet weeks followed, during which Dan chafed at the delay; and when at length word came that his credentials were ready, he was eager to be off, to forget a vain love in hard work, and live for others, since he might not for himself.Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott
Other romances are less doomed than poor Dan’s, and while they’re all sweet enough, Louisa May Alcott did a good job of balancing them out with Nan. Her refusal to bow to heteronormative pressure to find a husband is not only explicit and explicitly praised, she also gets the chance to monologue on the subject of why she doesn’t want a husband.
The March sisters and Laurie continue to delight. Mrs Meg’s mingled horror and admiration that her daughter inherited her flair for dramatics and wants to make a career of it was particularly enjoyable, as was her relationship with her older children becoming adults. The only fly in the ointment comes at the end, when the narrator expresses a desire to call up an earthquake to end the series. It feels like Louisa May Alcott’s way of saying she’s tired of these characters, which somewhat tarnishes a reader’s enjoyment of them.
Similarly, there’s a section early in the novel where Mrs Jo has to deal with autograph-hunters and the effects of her own celebrity. For anyone who has read a biography of Louisa May Alcott (or the annotations in Little Women), this section feels a little too lazily drawn from life. Overall, there’s a sense that the narrator (who is probably the author) doesn’t really want to be writing this book at all, which might make the reader for guilty for enjoying it.
As a long time fan, I came away from Jo’s Boys with mixed feelings, but I definitely want to read more of Louisa May Alcott’s work and see what she did with characters other than the March family.