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On Air: Jo March

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Sutton Foster'

Not an illustration: The publicists at Penguin (parent of Grosset & Dunlap) are still digging up permission for us to reproduce the illustrations Lynn Neary blogs about below. Meanwhile, here's your alternate Jo -- actress Sutton Foster in the short-lived 2005 Broadway musical version of Little Women. Bryan Bedder, Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bryan Bedder, Getty Images

When I started to work on this story I dug out the copy of Little Women that I read as young girl.

When I opened it up, there was an inscription on the front page. It was dated May 4, 1953 — my oldest sister, Maureen's, confirmation day. The book was a gift to her from our Uncle Buddy, a favorite uncle because he was young and handsome and always gave us great presents.

I was not yet old enough to read when Maureen got this present, but it was this same book that I would read many years later. It passed down from Maureen, to Jeanne to Joann and finally to me.

At some point, Joann signed her name in the front of the book. The four "Neary girls," as we everyone called us, felt a close connection with the four March sisters, and we each wanted to claim ownership of the book.

I think it was a major oversight that I, the youngest, somehow managed to spirit this copy of Little Women away when my parents' house was sold.

Though it's now falling apart, the book's illustrations are as vivid as ever. And it's the pictures that really make this edition so special: There are full-page color illustrations interspersed throughout the book.

In one, the four girls and Marmee stand around a piano in a softly lit room, singing songs. In addition to such tableaus, there are also black and white sketches, including the famous scene of Jo and Prof. Bhaer "under the umbrella."

I brought the book with me when I interviewed my friend Mary for this story. We both sighed as we turned the pages, our eyes lingering on our favorite illustrations.

Mary said she always waited to look at the pictures, feeling that it was cheating to jump ahead in order to find out what was coming next in the story. But thinking back, I don't think I was so disciplined. I'm pretty sure I couldn't resist sneaking a peek.



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Okay, to start with, I have to confess that I've never understood the theory that says that getting married means a woman gives up her independence. I was always perfectly happy with the ending to Little Women: Jo got a man who loved her, enjoyed her brains, encouraged her writing, and was a partner with her in a venture they both enjoyed, teaching the 'boys garden.'

I'd've been disappointed if she'd remade herself into a society woman to marry Teddy; I liked the fact that she got the chance to enjoy her own dreams with the Professor. Okay, so the plain, 40-ish professor wasn't the handsome young hero-type I was used to in my early reading, but that made him all the more interesting.

I've read Little Women about 15 times in the last 40 years or so -- can't say I understood it the first time, at about the age of 10; discovered it made more sense as I realized that it was set in the Civil War and I knew what the Civil War was.

I see different things and different perspectives every time I go back to it, with a better historical and life perspective myself. Can't say I like Little Men and Jo's Boys as well, but I love the first book. Also never thought that the sisters were too perfect to live up to -- idealized, yes, but enough of the humanity comes through that they are recognizably human and the more so within the limits of fiction of their time.

I also liked Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom -- another interesting pair of novels, and another one where most of the reviewers complain about the way the romance turned out and I always liked it!

Sent by Atlanta Lea Sheridan | 6:26 PM | 6-9-2008

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz
I can't believe you have not yet done a story on Dorothy, the little girl who yearns for the land Over the Rainbow. She allows us to dream, and then return to our roots. Even at 50+, I still get teary eyed at the last scene, when Judy Garland says "There's no place like home."

You should also discuss how Dorothy became a gay icon. (I'm sure there are many people who are better equipped to discuss this subject than I am!) For thousands of gay men and women, Dorothy became the symbol of escape from the ostracism of daily life to a magic land where everything was possible.

And I will never forget a San Francisco Pride Celebration in the mid 1980s. It was the darkest point in the AIDS crisis with no hope in sight. After the parade ten thousand people gathered at City Hall.

Val Diamond, the star of Beach Blanket Babylon, was performing. And she asked us to hold the hand of the person beside us and hope. Ten thousand people with tears streaming from their eyes stood together and sang Over the Rainbow.

Sent by Elizabeth Bachman | 6:47 PM | 6-9-2008

What do you mean, everyone wanted to be Jo? It was describing me so perfectly! I couldn't help being a little bit miffed that everyone in the story didn't love the book as much as I did. When my girls are old enough I'll introduce it to them and I hope I won't be disappointed.

Sent by Sandy, Honolulu | 9:28 PM | 6-9-2008

My Mom passed on her copy of Little Women and the sequels to me. Have any of you read the 2 sequels, Little Men and Jo's Boys? Jo is the focus, and all the books get much more into the adult characters of the 3 surviving sisters and Jo and the Prof. open a boys school. Not quite as good as the original book but still fascinating.

Sent by Jen | 11:38 AM | 6-10-2008

Lynn - What a fine job you did on this story, and the person who said she wanted to be like Louisa May Alcott echoed my feelings, but having studied her life for 25 years, I can tell you that though fascinating, it was no children's book.

I don't want to sound like a commercial, but your listeners will be able to see her first film biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, on American Masters in 2009, with Elizabeth Marvel, 4-time Obie winner and currently starring on Broadway in Top Girls, playing Louisa, and Jane Alexander as her first biographer, and read the biography of the same title from Henry Holt and Company when it comes out.

In the meantime, I'd recommend her journals and letters and Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson, which won the Pulitzer this year, and go to the website louisamayalcott.net for background on her life and lots of pictures. I think there's even the illustration you loved so much.

I bet I was one of many who suggested you include Jo March, but I never expected to hear it done so fully and interestingly. You really got into the whole mystique -- don't know if you picked up on my suggestion, but this is what I wrote to NPR back in January: Jo March is the heroine of Little Women. She's rambunctious, she's passionate, she's funny, she's tender, and she rebels against the constraints put on women and girls in Civil War-era New England. Like her creator, Louisa May Alcott, she struggles for mastery over her raging moods and imperfect behavior. For 140 years, mothers and daughters have cried with Jo over the death of her sister Beth, and puzzled over her refusal of charming Laurie's marriage proposal. They have watched her in adaptations on stage, TV, Hollywood, Bollywood, and Japanese anime.

Jo March's ambition to be a writer inspired the literary careers of women as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Ursula LeGuinn, and Geraldine Brooks. The inspiration of Jo March put Sandra Day O'Connor on her path to the Supreme Court.

As ambassador of the best American values Jo March has no peer. In over 50 languages girls and women in blue jeans, saris, and burkas have taken courage from her example of fierce independence coupled with family devotion. As a Korean woman said, " You don't grow up to walk two steps behind your husband if you've met Jo March."

Sent by Harriet Reisen | 3:54 PM | 6-10-2008