Friday, February 9, 2007

Book Review: Eight Cousins

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott. Little, Brown and Company: 1996. ISBN 0-316-03086-4.

You might be wondering why we're reviewing this. It's not sf or fantasy in any traditional sense, but it is, as Alison Lurie tells us in Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature, subversive children's literature, and that's enough to bring it under the eye of The Sci Fi Catholic.

Well, there's not much of a plot. Or much character development. The story is a thinly disguised sermon on what young girls need to be healthy. It follows a young orphan girl, Rose, who finds herself living with a lively uncle, who's also a doctor, and seven male cousins. No, really. That's the whole plot.

Most of what Alcott has to say wouldn't be considered subversive today, except perhaps in the sense of being too conservative. She gets props from The Sci Fi Catholic for being liberal and progressive in a way that's really meant to improve health and morals, not pervert them. She says that girls should run around and get exercise like the boys. They should learn housework because it's useful and energetic. They should wear clothing that is simple, loose-fitting, practical, and modest. They should avoid snake oil medicines. They should learn basic anatomy to know how to keep themselves healthy.

Alcott's diatribes about clothing are still useful. In this book, she wages a one-woman war on corsets, a sort of nineteenth century bra-burner. Though corsets are no longer an issue for young girls and women, there are other absurd fashion trends, and her recommendations are entirely sensible.

In spite of the storytelling flaws, this would be enough to get Alcott The Sci Fi Catholic's seal of approval, but she turns her ire on boys' adventure fiction and loses that esteemed award. She complains that in children's fiction, the morals and grammar should both be good and the situations realistic, which probably explains why her own book is so boring.

G. K. Chesterton, alway contrary, has an essay entitled "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls," which makes a point-by-point refutation of Alcott's arguments, though I know not whether Chesterton had her in mind when he wrote it. He points out what Alcott misses, that this type of boys' fiction is about adventure, and adventure is healthy for boys. He also notes that the morals of these stories are good; they uphold bravery and chivalry. Alcott would not allow children's fiction to feature children doing adult or beyond-adult things like piloting pirate ships or conquering nations, but these are staples the world over not only of children's stories but fables in general. Quite simply, Alcott doesn't understand story, which no doubt explains why this novel doesn't have one.

Of course, this is not to say that The Sci Fi Catholic thinks you should protect your children from Louisa May Alcott. We don't ban books around here. It would be more productive to read with your children, talk to them, ask what they think of Alcott's ideas, and explain the great gift of speculative boys' adventure fiction. This way, they won't be led astray by radical ideas.

We may continue this later with the sequel, Rose in Bloom, or as we like to call it, Eight Cousins 2: The Lecture Continues.
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