During my Primary school years in Elizabeth, New Jersey, avid readers shared books or went to local libraries on foot and by bicycle. Boys read as much fiction and biography as girls, and novels about growing up were very popular whether their protagonists were male or female. Among my close female friends, the great favourites were tales about family life: especially, the Louisa May Alcott series about the March family, set in America and beginning with Little Women, and the Canadian Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery.

Recently I re-read both series after buying the books second-hand. Like all great writers, Alcott has an immediately striking command of language and a strong sense of history. Almost at once, therefore, I saw why Little Women had been my favourite childhood book, read so many times that it fell apart and had to be replaced. A modern classic, whose essential features are as appealing now as they were in the 1940s, it is about four sisters living with their devoted mother in Concord, Massachusetts, making do while their father is far away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. Living in near poverty, and doing without pleasures once taken for granted, sorely tries them.

The quiet journey of the oldest March sister, Meg, takes her into the arms of John Brooke, the teacher who instructs next-door-neighbour Laurie, a lively fatherless boy being raised by his slightly forbidding grandfather, James Laurence. This elderly gentleman, who is not at all frightening when the March family gets to know him, is partial to Beth, the third daughter, who reminds him of the adored grandchild whom he lost years earlier. The piano that he generously gives Beth fills her life with joy—not least, because she is both shy and sickly, spending most of her time indoors.

It is art, not just music and sewing, that confers daily delights in the March household—especially for the youngest of the sisters, Amy. Although her drawings and sculpture are almost flawless, the diction errors that she makes with unfailing regularity amuse everyone in her life. Typically, Amy confuses ordinary words like ‘vampire’ with inventions, in this case ‘samphire’; and she regularly uses fractured French terms instead of the correct ones. It is, however, the blunders of Jo, the awkward tomboy most like Alcott herself, four years Amy’s senior, that take centre stage.

Jo’s intense efforts to be more virtuous are typically as unpredictable as they are engaging. When she helps to organise a holiday cooking project, forgetting to check the oven, everything burns. Staging home theatricals, one of which is an elaborate Dickensian comedy, she makes the original Sarah Gamp seem only minimally eccentric. To her amazement she inadvertently discovers one day that her loving mother, Marmee, has had problems controlling her temper very like her own. At a local ball, wearing a beautiful dress that she has burned while ironing it, she manages nonetheless to have a marvellous time dancing in a large private room with her dear friend Laurie.

Hard as she tries, Jo does not come fully into her own until she goes to New York to earn her own living as a governess. There she meets the love of her life, Professor Friedrich Bhaer, whom she eventually marries. With her husband she manages both to run a home for orphans (in Little Men) and to publish fiction. Nevertheless, this stage of her growing up is no more testing than earlier stages lovingly delineated by Alcott, who was raised in Concord. Particularly instructive is Josy-phine’s resilience. Nothing, not even the exceptionally demanding behaviour of her crusty Aunt March, defeats her for long.

This reflection is the first in a series about Growing Up that will describe fiction set in different parts of the world. For most of her life, starting in Year 3, Susan Reibel Moore has taught Reading, Writing, and literature.

Dr Susan Moore has been an inveterate reader all her life. Her PhD on Henry James (University of Sydney 1972) was revised and eventually published as a book in the University of Queensland Press Scholars’...