Jo’s Troubled Heart (Madame Alexander: The Little Women Journals) written by Charlotte Emerson, illustrated by Kevin Wasden
Avon Books, 1998
(For Little Women Fan Fiction, part I, see here.)
There are four books in this series from the Madame Alexander Doll Company, published to accompany a short-lived series of “play dolls” marketed in the late 1990s. They were 16-inch dolls designed to be played with by children, as opposed to be acquired by collectors, and they were one of many ill-fated attempts to make inroads into the American Girl doll and book market. Each book corresponds to one of the four March sisters, and they are intended to reflect the characters and plots of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women without actually replicating them. Good luck with that, you may be thinking. But the books are nicely written stories for middle-grade readers and the characters do pretty much conform to the personalities developed in much richer detail in Alcott’s novel. If that sounds like damning them with faint praise, these books do what they were meant to do. If they serve as a gateway to the real literary work of Alcott, so much the better.
The plot here is somewhat parallel to one of the anguished moments in the original, when an angry Amy, frustrated that she has been excluded by a trip to the theater, deliberately burns her sister Jo’s manuscript. Jo’s Troubled Heart has a mild, but still poignant, commentary on the idea of family revenge. Convinced that her sisters have conspired to play a joke at her expense because of a series of bad but coincidental events, Jo decides on a writer’s revenge. She will alter the gothic tale she is planning to send to a magazine by making each villain correspond to one of her sisters. The plot suggests a bit of paranoia and Edgar Allan Poe-like fears. When the story is published, in spite of Jo’s attempts, with Laurie’s help, to have it withdrawn, her sisters are unperturbed. Nora Ephron’s famous saying that “everything is copy” operates here, but no one is angry.
For middle-grade readers, the plot about family anger offers a sense that sibling rivalry can get out of hand. Emerson also includes Marmee’s kind admonitions to Jo about learning to control her anger, an element of their mother-daughter relationship which is present in Alcott’s novel. Women have been warned to control their anger, or to interpret it through a religious lens of acceptance, for centuries, and Alcott definitely confronted this in her own life. Jo’s Troubled Heart offers a milder interpretation of family dynamics: “Your sisters are doing the best they can to keep their own tempers in the face of yours. Don’t harbor a bitter heart, darling Jo. Can’t you take your sisters back into your confidence and trust?” This sounds fair, if a bit less dramatic than the original novel.
I, for one, was relieved that the story appeared. I was really worried that Jo’s literary career would be stopped before it began by her feelings of remorse for vindictiveness. There were no terrible revelations in her story. Of course, Little Women itself presents a sanitized version of the complex Alcott family. The Little Women Journals are pleasant doll fiction, not a replacement for reading a nineteenth-century novel about female independence, the literary ambitions of women, and finding a spouse worthy of Jo March.