Little Women Remixed, But Not Reimagined
When Bethany Morrow was asked to write a new take on the beloved classic, she agreed on one condition: The new March family would look nothing like the old.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Joanna March is passionate and very good with words, yet as a young girl, she trained herself to keep her thoughts to herself and her family.
BETHANY C MORROW: (Reading) Unless she was alone with Papa and Mammy or Meg and Beth, she'd rarely said a word as a child. She certainly did not speak to white people. They mostly assumed her mute as a result and thought very little of poor Meg, whom they'd made keep their daughter company during lessons, pretending to teach those lessons to her younger sister, who was clearly incapable of learning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joanna held her tongue during her family's enslavement, but in Bethany C. Morrow's new novel, she employs her sharp wit and her ink-stained fingers to help the March family build a new life. The book is called "So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix," and Bethany C. Morrow joins us now to talk about it. Hello.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you first come to know "Little Women"? Did you read Louisa May Alcott's book first or see the many movies based on her book?
MORROW: I did not. I don't have any memory of reading "Little Women," but I did watch the 1994 Winona Ryder adaptation on a pretty regular basis. My family was very, very into that movie.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, your story begins in a free people's colony in North Carolina under the protection of Union soldiers, where free Black people are establishing a community. And it's based on a real place.
MORROW: Yes, it is based on the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, as it was called. I did a lot of research, primarily with Patricia C. Click's "Time Full Of Trial," which deals with the entire life span, the unfortunately short life span of the freed people colony. But it also talks a lot about the other freed people colonies throughout the United States. And I felt like it was an extremely important place to begin this story. It was just the perfect setting.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In your book, there's this theme of sisterhood, of family, you know, in the same way that it is there in the original. But obviously, it has a different resonance because when we talk about the history of how families were separated under slavery, the bonds of family means something new.
MORROW: Absolutely. And it's something that I deal with not just in enslavement because it's something that has been a campaign in the United States against Black American family structures from the very beginning and continues. At the time, it of course was very normal, unfortunately, for families to be completely separated from each other, sold off to different areas and making it impossible to really have that genealogy intact.
It's also why I chose to have Amy, the youngest in the family, the found family. And so she wasn't biologically born into the March family. I felt that that was a realistic interpretation for a Black American family at the time. And the number of us who have to this day, we - what we consider family goes far beyond the bonds of genetics and biology because of this history that we share.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's one thing that you do in this book, which is a lot of the stuff to do with the period of enslavement are in flashbacks, you know, Meg remembering her experience as you write of being a polite plaything for the spoiled daughter of a wealthy white family. And, you know, there's also the sort of pressures that Jo faces when she wants to pursue her writing career. And there's an insistence that she write a slave narrative and a certain kind of one at that. But there isn't really a delving fully into the trauma. Did you decide that deliberately? Because a lot of "Little Women" is about joy and about purpose.
MORROW: It is. And also it is really important to remember that we have very limited representation, and presence isn't the same thing as representation. Representation centers around the Black American person, the Black American community. And it does not take into account constantly the white gaze. As soon as you allow people to be fully fleshed out, fully formed and within community especially, you're going to find that their lives have a lot more facets and aspects to it. And when you center the story on Black women, as I did in this book, you're going to see a lot of joy. You're going to see a lot of intimacy. You're going to see a lot of ambition, personality. And that happens when you, again, decenter the white gaze and you focus on the Black American character.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was that the draw to sort of re, you know, invent this particular story centering around these new characters that you've created?
MORROW: The draw to do this particular project is to challenge the canon and to challenge this - the fantasy that we consider historical fiction. And that was my purpose in writing "So Many Beginnings" and writing "So Many Beginnings" as a "Little Women" remix because I could have written this story and would have written this story with no connection whatsoever to "Little Women." The only universal aspect of "Little Women" was the familial love. The fact that people will see so much similarity between "So Many Beginnings" and "Little Women" despite the fact that I did not read "Little Women" tells you just how inundated and indoctrinated we are with that story and with what we consider, quote-unquote, "classics." And it gives an opportunity. And it's an opportunity that a lot of Black creatives are taking right now to take excavated history and authentic stories and come through the entry point of a beloved property that has gotten more than its due of attention.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bethany C. Morrow - her new book is called "So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix." Thank you so much.
MORROW: Thank you, Lulu.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "LITTLE WOMEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.