Little Women Next Door – by Sheila Solomon Klass
Holiday House, 2000
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-69) has influenced authors, readers, and bookish girls for more than one hundred and-fifty years. The original novel has been reimagined and recreated in film, opera, and theater, and has also inspired numerous works of literature, from biography to graphic novel. I would like to begin looking at some of the novels which respond to the original classic; some of these have become relatively well-known, while others remain obscure. In the latter category is an unusual middle-grade novel by Sheila Solomon Klass, the author of several works focused on female characters. Sadly, there is not even a Wikipedia entry dedicated to her. (Klass is the mother of pediatrician, author, and New York Times health columnist Perri Klass. Dr. Klass is a founder of the children’s literacy charitable program, Reach Out and Read.). Little Women Next Door is based on an unusual premise. Set in the Massachusetts community where Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, along with other “consociates,” attempted an experiment in communal living at Fruitlands, it is told through the perspective of a next-door neighbor, Susan, who befriends Louisa and the odd assortment of Fruitlands residents. The narrative makes clear that Transcendentalist philosophy was more of a burden than a liberating experience for women and children.
Susan lives on the adjacent farm with her stern, traditionally Christian father, and her empathetic Aunt Nell. Her mother has died, and Susan is acutely aware of the loss. Her father’s standards are exacting and she has few opportunities to socialize outside of her family. When the non-conformist newcomers show up next door, the first key to their unusual way of life is a man with a long beard. Klass is adept at presenting the perspective of an intelligent child who questions adult behavior while still lacking the confidence to fully trust her own judgments. Soon Louisa becomes her friend and confidante, and her father, who turns out to be more flexible than he had first seemed, actually allows Susan to become a student in their unorthodox school, where experiential learning is the norm. Susan also has a stutter; rendering her speech in the text seems awkward, yet probably as close to accurate as possible. As she gains confidence studying with Louisa’s father and her friends, her speech improves. Klass shows this as an incremental process, not a miracle.
One of the strongest and most compelling characters is Louisa’s mother, Abigail. Her patience with the philosophy of Fruitlands’ male founders is not infinite. Not only is veganism enforced, but other less palatable prohibitions also make everyone’s life difficult, even dangerous. Without a lamp using whale oil, Mrs. Alcott can barely see well enough to read, nor, for that matter, to perform the countless domestic tasks which the supposedly radical men cannot envision as anything but women’s work.
The villain of the story is based, as are most of the characters apart from Susan and her family, on an actual person. Charles Lane was a British philosopher whose rigid adherence to abstract ideals, as well as his overall incompetence, reduced life at Fruitlands to a daily struggle for survival. Yes, they are abolitionists and committed to progressive education and other causes, but Lane’s insensitivity borders on cruelty. When he attempts to force the Alcott’s to join him, and his motherless son, at a Shaker community, Abigail refuses. Enforced celibacy and its destruction of her family relationships are beyond her ability to compromise.
Susan sees adults and their shortcomings clearly. Klass’s creation of this fictional character exposes their hypocrisy and Bronson’s weaknesses, but also his tenderness and Abigail’s strength. Most importantly, it brings out Louisa’s wild imagination as she invents the stories that will become the beginning of her career, eventually chronicling the lives of girls and women. Sheila Solomon Klass has offered a different angle on Little Women’s creator, elaborating on her challenging childhood and her fierce support for the people around her.