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 still in Massachusetts working as 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 in Londona as part of the Clubmobile program, a USO-style service club for soldiers. And Beth, Beth is already dead when the book starts. The March sisters are each grieving in their own way while the war rages on.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any period of time, you’re probably aware that I’ve read a lot of Little Women retellings. I’ve been reading and writing about Alcott retellings since I took an Alcott specific class in undergrad. Great or Nothing is exemplary in this category, as it pays tribute to the original work while doing something new with the familiar story which is what I look for in a retelling.

Four established young adult authors take on the personas of the March sisters. Tandem authorship gives each sister the benefit of a truly unique voice that builds upon the character traits that Alcott gave them 150 years ago rather than over relying on those traits. Each sister’s voice is nuanced and Great or Nothing doesn’t fall into the trap of focusing too much on Jo or ignoring Amy because each author takes care with their sister.

Joy McCullough, whose debut verse novel Blood Water Paint was longlisted for the 2018 national book award novel, deftly handled Beth’s verse sections. The inclusion of Beth’s voice on the page even with her character’s physical absence, highlights the importance of Beth’s character. Many retellings of Little Women don’t know what to do with Beth. Even dead, Great or Nothing‘s Beth is the most compelling version of Beth I’ve read in a retelling. Her connection to her sisters comes through in McCullough’s poems. These poems also provide transitions between chapters from the other March sisters that might have otherwise been more discursive.

Speaking of Beth’s death, the author’s of this adaption chose to focus in on Part II of Little Women rather than starting at the beginning of the story. Retellings like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and Jo: an adaptation of Little Women (sort of) tend to stay away from Part II of Little Women preferring to leave off with Marmee’s return from tending to Father and Beth’s first recovery from illness. The exception to this is Bethany Morrow’s Little Women Remix So Many Beginnings, part of Macmillan’s Remixed Classics series. True to form as a remix not a retelling, Morrow handles Beth’s illness in a creative and culturally specific manner.

The common choice to focus on Part I might be that many of Little Women’s iconic moments are front loaded. Classic scenes like “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” the burning of Jo’s manuscript, Amy’s fall through the ice, and Jo and Laurie’s entire friendship are referenced in Great or Nothing but occur off page before the action of the novel. These are nice nods to canon and Little Women fans, but leaving them out allows for the characters’ emotions and experiences to take center stage rather than trying to cram in every notable moment as an act of fan-service.

The balancing of homage and transformation allows Great or Nothing to emerge as an exploration of grief. The sisters and Marmee grieve Beth’s death in individual ways and that portrayal of grief is startlingly intimate. Each experience of grief in turn effects each sisters relationship with the others which creates the novel’s central tension. The global turmoil of World War II parallels the inner turmoil that Beth’s death has brought to the March family. Each sister turns her talents towards the war and gains first hand experience with the war’s impact; Jo working in a factory and turning towards journalism, Meg balancing teaching with service work in Concord, and Amy bringing her charisma to comfort soldiers in England. The three sisters are never all in the same place at the same time in this novel, yet they are still able to find their way through their grief and back together again by the end of this novel.

I was disappointed that Great or Nothing misses out on the best parts of Laurie. It’s not to say that Laurie isn’t well represented in the book – he is. He’s in the Army Air Force and deployed in England where he runs into Amy. I liked that Laurie’s only on-page appearances focus solely on his growing relationship with Amy as he goes from seeing her as a kid sister to a love interest. This keeps any thought that Laurie should have ended up with Jo well in the back of the readers mind. However, Laurie as a romantic interest has never been what I like about his character. I like Laurie’s goofy friendship and the antics he and Jo share. Without Part I of Little Women, goofy Laurie is left out of the book.

In terms of its romances, Great or Nothing follows trends of other recent Little Women retellings by making Jo queer. A few of these retellings are graphic novels set in the present-day and are for younger readers than Great or Nothing so they may include a short coming out sequence or a kiss, but generally it stops at that. I appreciate that Tess Sharpe was able to have Jo’s queerness occupy more space than has been given to it in other retellings I’ve read. Portraying Jo as a queer character follows current research that suggests Louisa May Alcott was queer or Trans. Regardless of her own gender and sexuality, Alcott certainly preferred that Jo didn’t end up with anyone when writing Little Women. I also think Sharpe deftly handled Jo’s queerness within the confines of the 1940s setting and avoided anachronisms.

Not only is Great or Nothing an exemplary Little Women retelling, but it’s also an excellent work of historical fiction. I’ve read extensively in YA World War II historical fiction yet had never come across anything about the Red Cross Clubmobile girls and very little about factory work. Plus, Meg and Marmee’s work in Concord goes beyond victory gardens and war bonds when exploring women’s service work on the homefront. It’s the combination of excellent historical writing, an understanding of what makes readers keep returning to the March sisters, and a focus on grieving Beth’s death that makes Great or Nothing a standout read with an audience that goes beyond just fervent Alcott fans.

If you’re interested in reading more of my Little Women content, all of those posts can be found 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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