Great or Nothing: A Great Little Women Retelling

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are back in another Little Women retelling, this time during World War II. Meg is a teacher at Concord High School, Jo is working in an airplane factory in Connecticut, and Amy has lied her way into the Red Cross where she’s working as a Clubmobile girl in London. And Beth, Beth is already dead when the book starts.

I’ve read a lot of Little Women adaptations, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably already well aware of this fact. Great or Nothing may be my new favorite adaptation (sorry Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy). I make that claim because it meets the expectations I have for a retelling which is paying tribute to the original but feeling like it does something new with the story rather than being a straightforward retelling.

And now a brief interlude for an official description and cover photo:

“In the spring of 1942, the United States is reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. While the US starts sending troops to the front, the March family of Concord, Massachusetts grieves their own enormous loss: the death of their daughter, Beth.

Under the strain of their grief, Beth’s remaining sisters fracture, each going their own way with Jo nursing her wounds and building planes in Connecticut, Meg holding down the home front with Marmee, and Amy living a secret life as a Red Cross volunteer in London–the same city where one Mr. Theodore Laurence is stationed as an army pilot.”

There’s a lot that makes this adaptation great, and while I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, no promises (to be fair Little Women is over 150 years old).

One of the things that is unique about this adaptation is that it doesn’t just focus on one perspective and instead offers us a close third on Meg, Jo, and Amy. Each of these perspectives is also written by a different author which helps each sister feel like they have a unique voice beyond just the unique personality traits that Alcott wrote for each sister in Little Women.

While Beth is already dead before the book starts, her perspective is still included in the book. There are verse sections written from the point-of-view that I call “Beth’s Ghost.” I thought this was a really cool way to really highlight the importance of Beth’s character. I found these poems to be really effective at both making Beth a more nuanced character than honestly a lot of Little Women related content. The poems also made for smooth transitions between the chapters from the other sisters that might otherwise have been somewhat disconnected.

Speaking of Beth’s Ghost, one of the choices that the authors of this adaptation made was to really focus in on Part II of Little Women and even more specifically, the part after Beth dies. So some of the classic moments and lines of Little Women like “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, Amy falling through the ice, and Jo and Laurie’s entire friendship, happen off page before the novel starts and are only referenced.

These were nice nods to Little Women fans and the canon of the story, but leaving them out really allowed the authors to focus in on the characters experiences and emotions after Beth’s death and in a time of global turmoil without trying to fit in everything for a straight-forward retelling. I really appreciate when retellings of classics do something unique with the source material while still feeling true to the story they’re retelling and Great or Nothing really accomplishes that.

Because the focus of this story is so specific, I found that it really stands out as an exploration of grief. Each of the sisters grieves Beth’s death in a different way and their grief and relationships with each other felt so visceral. Each of the sisters really feels much more fleshed out than they do in other retellings and in particular I liked what this one did for Meg’s character the most.

One of the things that I did feel like was missing from this book was Laurie. And that’s not to say that Laurie isn’t in the book, he is. He’s in the Army Air Force and is deployed in England, where he of course runs into Amy. I really liked the Laurie’s only on-page appearances focused on his developing relationship with Amy as he goes from seeing her as a little kid to seeing her as a love interest. However, Laurie as a romantic interest has never really been what I liked about Laurie. I like Laurie’s goofy friendship and antics with Jo, so I wish sad that wasn’t a part of the book. We only got to see an aftermath.

Speaking of Jo, this book follows trends of other specifically the graphic novel Little Women adaptations by making Jo explicitly queer. I appreciate this as it follows speculation that Alcott was possibly queer and the fact that she would have preferred that Jo didn’t end up with anyone when writing Little Women. It definitely doesn’t occupy a huge part of the book, but I still thought I would be sure to mention it for those who might be curious. I also think it was handled really well given the time period that the book is set in. Other Little Women texts that make Jo queer are modern retellings, it’s about time that a historical retelling did the same.

If you’re interested in reading more of my Little Women content, check it out here. In the meantime, I hope you’ll read Great or Nothing and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or through my contact form.

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