The Book That Changed My Life: Jo March Is Me

The Book That Changed My LifeThank goodness we live in a literary era when cultural and racial identities are seen as important mirrors in stories. That wasn’t true when I came of age. Maybe that’s why it feels odd to confess that Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was such a profound influence during my adolescence. But here’s why Jo played such a huge role in my formation.

First, she sought to be a paid, professional writer in a culture that scorned women who sold art for money. And Jo succeeded, even though girls like her were supposed to write, draw, dance, act, and sing only for refinement, not for revenue. Wonder where I’d heard that before? In our middle-class Bengali family, a daughter’s artistic talents were shown off to impress prospective in-laws. As Aunt March reminded Jo’s family, marrying well was the top priority for girls of a certain class.

Second, Jo bucked the norms and constraints of femininity as defined by society. Running races; cutting off her hair; dressing simply; avoiding parties, fuss, and frills; taking solitary rambles; shoveling snow; befriending boys — these acts of rebellion seemed astounding to me. Revolutionary, even. Reading (and re-reading) Little Women bolstered my own growing resistance to sexism.

Third, she loved her sisters and parents dearly. In an all-girl family, like mine, Jo proved that daughters could be as valuable as sons. She took on the role I coveted — the sister with strong shoulders to lean on—and became the eventual provider for the household.

Basically, Jo March was a Bengali girl growing up in the 1970s trapped in the body of a Concord, Massachusetts, nineteenth-century teenager. I will love her forever.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.
Mitali Perkins
Mitali Perkins
Mitali Perkins is the author of Tiger Boy, Rickshaw Girl, Bamboo People (all Charlesbridge), Monsoon Summer (Delacorte), and the First Daughter books (Dutton), among others. Her latest book is You Bring the Distant Near (Farrar).

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