Books

How Much Can You Change Little Women Before It Stops Being Little Women?

A twist on the classic novel imagines the Marches as Black women—and becomes something completely new.

The cover of So Many Beginnings (featuring four Black women in mid-19th-century clothing) repeated over and over.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Macmillan Publishers.

The premise of the series is deceptively simple: What if the protagonists of classic works of literature like Treasure Island, Wuthering Heights, and Robin Hood weren’t white? In April of 2020, Feiwel and Friends, a young adult subdivision of Macmillan, announced the launch of a new project called Remixed Classics. According to Publishers Weekly, the idea came from a Twitter thread where New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie meditated on how Batman would be different if Bruce Wayne were Black. Importantly, Bouie noted that, “you could just racebend [Batman] and be done with it, but I think there’s a real opportunity in reimagining the character as a black American, and how race shapes his background and the circumstances of his vigilante career.”

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The second title in the Remixed Classics series, a reimagining of Little Women by Bethany C. Morrow in which the March family is Black, takes that opportunity and runs with it. (The first title, A Clash of Steel, is a reworking of Treasure Island that takes place on the South China Sea.)

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So Many Beginnings may have been marketed as a remix of Little Women, but if we’re sticking with musical terminology, then it might be more accurate to say that Morrow samples from Louisa May Alcott’s classic. Like the original novel,  So Many Beginnings takes place during the Civil War and follows the trials and travails of the March family. There are four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Anyone who’s read Alcott’s book or seen one of the film versions will recognize the broad strokes. Margaret’s greatest ambition is to start a family of her own. Joanne wishes to be a writer. Bethlehem wants little more than to help others. Amethyst is the coddled young artist of the bunch—though in So Many Beginnings she dances rather than paints. And they all adore their mother (Morrow’s version goes by Mammy rather than Marmee). The March patriarch is away, leaving the women to fend for themselves.

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But that’s about where the similarities end. The original, white Marches, living in Concord, Massachusetts, strain primarily against the limitations of genteel poverty in the absence of their primary breadwinner. Morrow’s Marches face something altogether different. In the immediate aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Marches have settled in a freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island, along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Contemporaneously referred to as “contraband camps” by the Union, the Civil War–era history of colonies and villages like Roanoke has been largely left unexplored in nonfiction, let alone in fiction. “The word contraband meant that even the soldiers and officers whose recent victories had won their freedom did not view them as people,” Morrow writes. “Black folk were spoils of war, if they were more than a nuisance, and their greatest value was in not being available to serve the Confederacy.” In the Union imagination, the Marches and their neighbors on Roanoke are not so much liberated people as confiscated property. They are technically free, and while that freedom is dearly cherished, it also comes with conditions. It is those conditions that So Many Beginnings is largely concerned with—while each of the March sisters eventually leaves Roanoke, the majority of the book takes place in the years they’re all living under the same roof.

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Similar to Little Women, So Many Beginnings is mostly carried forward by vignettes focusing on each of the sisters that set up their individual personalities and orientations to what they describe as their “second lifetimes.” The novel starts with the Marches receiving a visit from a Northern journalist by the name of Joseph Williams who, unlike the family, was born free. Morrow is at her strongest when detailing the tension inherent to the relationships formed in and necessitated by the time period. Her portrayal of Williams’ relative ignorance when he brashly calls for recently freed slaves to view the war effort as their fight too is evocative, as is Mammy’s response to it: “You must understand that we who needed this war to become free know it’s our fight, whether we see battle on a field or only every day.” In describing the paternalism of a young white missionary who takes an interest in the Marches when Beth falls ill, Morrow writes that “Beth—and indeed all Black people—had seen the kind of benevolent attentiveness that made them projects or pets, and either way, they were less than autonomous people, and as ever expected to perform.”

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Still, at times the book strains under the weight of educating, rather than entertaining. It’s a strain that’s familiar to readers of historical romance novels written by and about Black women. (It’s a strain familiar also to readers of Alcott’s Little Women, whose message in the 21st century smacks of Christian piety.) In many ways it’s up to the March family to rectify the ignorance of their contemporaries, whether they be the young missionary or a Black, Northern patron who wants Jo to write her slave narrative in a more “authentic” tone. The pressure to educate does mean that the sisterly rancor that occasionally tinged Alcott’s novel is missing from Morrow’s. There is no burning of Jo’s book or negging of Meg’s ambitions to be married. The Marches rarely fight, which means that So Many Beginnings doesn’t quite capture the sometimes fraught nature of siblings as well as Alcott’s original does.

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That doesn’t mean Morrow’s version isn’t without its own charms. She manages to make a familiar story entirely hers, and the rationale for omitting those parts of the story ultimately makes sense within her new context. Aspiring toward marriage and motherhood means something altogether different to a Black woman less than a year removed from an institution that gave little thought to separating children from their mothers and wives from their husbands—if they allowed them to be married at all. And Jo’s career as a writer not only takes into account the Black tradition of oral storytelling, it hinges almost entirely on her desire to be useful to her community in Roanoke. It wouldn’t make sense for her younger sister to attempt to sabotage that.

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Yes, the characters’ names may be the same, but their stories are their own and in some ways make Alcott’s version more satisfying. Unlike Alcott’s Jo, Morrow’s does not wind up with a random German professor and though she ends the novel unmarried, she is still in a deeply committed relationship. One of the loveliest passages in the book comes near the end when Jo finally confesses that she loves Morrow’s version of Laurie.

“I’m just afraid,” Jo began, and her eyes fell. “That I don’t love the way so many do. And that I’m keeping you from a better kind.”

When she looked back, there was a dampness in Lorie’s eyes.

“No,” he said.

“No?” she echoed, smirking and mimicking the shaking of his head. “That’s it?”

“That’s it, Jo,” Lorie said, and never broke her gaze. “There is no better kind.”

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It’s a powerful affirmation of the many kinds of love—platonic and otherwise—that make up a full life.

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So Many Beginnings and the concept of racebending in general present an interesting intellectual exercise, one that forces readers to interrogate how much the supposed universality of a source text, especially a classic, is bound up in the whiteness of its characters. How far do you have to bend something not before it breaks, but before it becomes something entirely different? That’s not to disparage Alcott’s version—I’ve gone as far as to both read and love Little Women and its sequels, which follow Jo’s exploits as the head of a boarding school for boys. But our favorite things always come out stronger after standing up to interrogation and, while Morrow transmutes Alcott’s beloved classic the most, she is hardly the first to tinker with it. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation inspired fierce debate around its sympathetic portrayal of Amy and its ambiguous ending. As for the 2018 modern retelling of Little Women, all I’ll say is that it exists and Lucas Grabeel from High School Musical is in the cast.

Audiences often think of adaptations as identical, comparing and contrasting the new to the old to find the differences, often confusing the most faithful adaptation for the best. But what Morrow’s So Many Beginnings shows is that variations on a theme—even significant ones—are not betrayals of the source material. Maybe we can stop thinking of a worthy adaptation as a twin to the original and more as a sister.

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