Happy Birthday Louisa May Alcott!

November 29 is  the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, one of the most popular authors America has ever produced. And unlike many best sellers of the 19th century, Alcott’s books are still familiar to most Americans.

Louisa May Alcott

Success did not come easily to Alcott, but once it arrived, it lingered for more than her lifetime. Her most famous book, Little Women, lives on not only in print, but in a long parade of film versions. Looking at the last several versions shows an interesting perspective on the storylines and actresses favored over the years. The leading character in each of these adaptations is Jo, the tomboy who grows up to be a writer. The actresses who have played  Jo mirror some of the changes in the way we have viewed women over the years.

During the difficult years of the 1930s when Americans were struggling with lost jobs and few opportunities, many of them turned to the movies for encouragement. The 1933 version of Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn, who brought to the film the sharp-tongued, cleverness of an actress who exemplified the never-say-die attitude that helped us survive the difficult 1930s.

By the time 1949 had rolled around, America had recovered from the Great Depression and World War II was over.  The sweet-faced June Allyson was a perfect example of a spunky American girl who no longer needed the sharpness of Hepburn. She made her way through life with a sunny smile and obstacles melted in her path.

When Greta Gerwig remade the story for a new film in 2019, Jo had changed into a very 21st century woman who knows her own mind and finds her own independent path. Played by Saoirse Ronan, she no longer needs the sharp tongue of Hepburn or the sweet smiles of Allison. Striding into the future that she is determined to build no mere man would dare to question her right to her ambition or to her success.

I can’t help wondering what Louisa Alcott would have thought of these versions. Growing up in a family plagued by poverty even though her father was part of a vibrant group of New England intellectuals,  she wrote her most famous book under the pressure of need. She resented having to write a book for children, but her family needed money and she felt she had no choice. Success came quickly as Little Women became a best seller and gave the family security, but Louisa was never quite content. During a long life of writing bestsellers and supporting her family, she was never able to fulfill her deepest ambition to write meaningful adult novels.

Bronson Alcott

The story of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott has been well told in John Matterson’s 2008 book Eden’s Outcasts; The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matterson’s biography is an adult version of what life was like for the Alcott girls as they grew into womanhood. It offers a poignant recasting of how one American family grew during the turbulent 19th century. If you read Little Women when you were a child,  perhaps it is time to read Eden’s Outcasts. It will broaden your understanding of how real life interacts with the fictions that grow out of it.

In the meantime, let’s all raise a toast to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday this weekend.

Taking to the open road–Saudi Arabian women

Sometimes all it takes is a movie to open our eyes to some basic injustices. Yesterday I saw the Saudi Arabian movie Wadjda about a determined young girl—ten or eleven years old—who wants to have a bicycle so she can race with a boy who is her friend and neighbor.

two Saudi girls in school
Saudi girls memorizing verses from the Koran.
The movie gives us an intimate glimpse into the life of a lively Saudi girl. She has a quiet family life as the only child of a warm, caring mother and father, although the father is only with the family on weekends.

Gradually we glimpse the stringent and seemingly meaningless restrictions on the lives of both Wadjda and her mother. In the girls’ school that Wadjda attends, the children are not allowed to play in the schoolyard when construction workers are working in the distance—the men might catch a glimpse of them. They cannot laugh or talk loudly because “a woman’s voice is her nakedness” and must never be heard by men outside of her family. Wadjda’s mother goes to work every day, but has to travel in a van with a male driver because women are not allowed to drive nor to walk on the streets. She and her daughter cannot even go shopping without asking the driver to take them to the store.

Although pre-pubescent Wadjda is allowed to walk through the sandy lots of the city and to have her face uncovered (although her hair must remain hidden), we leave the theater knowing that far more restrictions await her when she grows older.

Saudi woman at a mall
Saudi woman at a mall
Surely every American woman who walks out of the movie must wonder why Saudi women continue to submit to the stringent rules that limit their lives so drastically.

There are a few far-off glimmers of hope for women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia. The king has proclaimed that starting in 2015 women will be allowed to vote and to run in local elections. That is a start. Most women, however, long for the freedom of driving more than they long for the vote. BBC World News reports that a new campaign asking for the right of women to drive has attracted more than 11,000 signatures. The day on which Saudi women are planning to take to the roads is October 26, 2013. To some activists, the right to drive seems trivial, but if you think about what it would mean to be unable to leave the house until some man can be found to drive you on any errand or visit, it’s easy to understand. Day after day women suffer the embarrassment, expense, and humiliation of being totally dependent on the wishes of a male who has the key to a car.

Even though the number of Saudi women who have learned to drive must be tiny—only the educated members of a wealthy family would ever be able to learn—it is at least a start. When women have the ability to travel locally and to visit one another without supervision, who knows what independent plans they may foster? Those of us who live in the West should all support the Saudi women in their efforts. Let’s join together to hope that someday Wadjda could have not only a bicycle, but the keys to a car so she can grow into the kind of strong, independent woman that is needed in Saudi Arabia and the world.

Does history have to be true?

Millions of viewers saw the Academy Awards on Sunday evening as Argo won the award for best film. People who have seen the movie mostly agree that it’s a fine adventure film based on the story of the American hostages who escaped from captivity in Iran in 1979. Everyone seemed happy with the award except for the Canadians who were chiefly responsible for the escape. Somehow the adventure had turned into a CIA caper instead of an appreciation of the help of Canadians, and especially ambassador Ken Taylor, who had planned and carried out most of the successful escape.

Does it matter that a movie gives credit to the wrong people in a film based on real history? It certainly matters to Canadians, especially to those who know and respect Ken Taylor, the former ambassador who was central to the story. Former president Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time of the escape, was one of the few Americans who tried to set things straight. He credited Canadians with being responsible for 90% of the planning and execution of the escape.

In an unusual happy ending, producer and director Ben Affleck worked to set the matter straight by changing a final line in the film to credit the Canadian contribution as an “example of international cooperation” according to newspaper reports. Ambassador Taylor was flown to LA for the Academy Awards ceremony and the story ended with smiles all around.

But did it matter that history was distorted in the first version? It seems to me it does. As most of us are aware, we often get of information about history from movies, television, and fiction. If entertaining stories are based on history, the least their authors can try to do is get the facts straight. The Argo story was corrected because there are many people still around who remember the events. Many other historical events are distorted in films for the sake of building tension or glorifying a hero or some other motive, but those of us who care about understanding the world ought to protest. While we will never know all the facts of history, at least we can try to present honestly the ones that are verified.