When a colleague messaged me about Sarah Miller’s forthcoming Marmee, I knew I had to hop on NetGalley and request an ARC. Marmee is a Little Women retelling from the point of view of Mrs. March, or Marmee, as her daughters call her.
Of course this book is right up my alley as a consumer of all things Alcott adaptations/retellings but I was intrigued because I’d read Miller’s Caroline, a retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Ma’s point of view. I thought that Caroline was really intriguing but also felt a little weird because Ma had sexual desire for Pa in a way that felt a little uncomfortable to read about. I was morbidly curious to see if Marmee included similar feelings for Mr. March.
Marmee is out October 25 from William Morrow .
The Book Description
In 1861, war is raging in the South, but in Concord, Massachusetts, Margaret March has her own battles to fight. With her husband serving as an army chaplain, the comfort and security of Margaret’s four daughters– Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–now rest on her shoulders alone. Money is tight and every month, her husband sends less and less of his salary with no explanation. Worst of all, Margaret harbors the secret that these financial hardships are largely her fault, thanks to a disastrous mistake made over a decade ago which wiped out her family’s fortune and snatched away her daughters’ chances for the education they deserve.
Yet even with all that weighs upon her, Margaret longs to do more–for the war effort, for the poor, for the cause of abolition, and most of all, for her daughters. Living by her watchwords, “Hope and keep busy,” she fills her days with humdrum charity work to keep her worries at bay. All of that is interrupted when Margaret receives a telegram from the War Department, summoning her to her husband’s bedside in Washington, D.C. While she is away, her daughter Beth falls dangerously ill, forcing Margaret to confront the possibility that the price of her own generosity toward others may be her daughter’s life.
A stunning portrait of the paragon of virtue known as Marmee, a wife left behind, a mother pushed to the brink, a woman with secrets.
Let’s cut to the chase:
While I think that the book description provide by the publisher is a little bit too sensationalist for me, I thought this book was incredible. It’s so many things that Little Women isn’t but that are just under the surface of Alcott’s novel and Marmee really is such an incredible character to dig into. In the back matter, Miller explains how she based aspects on Alcott’s mother’s real life and I think those added aspects of Marmee’s character work really well (more on that in a bit).
IT’s a Civil War Book
Sure, Little Women is a civil war book too, but because the protagonists are young women the focus is a lot more on their family life and their personal dramas (which are delightful), but because Margaret March has a husband at war and is actively volunteering in relief efforts for soldiers and for impoverished Concord residents.
The true reality of the union during the war and the emotions that Margaret experiences while Mr. March is off at war are brought to the forefront of this book. The focus on the civil war elements are particularly effective because it is a deviation from other Little Women retellings that just hit on the same beats of Alcott’s original story. Don’t get me wrong, Miller hits those beats too in Marmee (like Christmas (which won’t be Christmas without any presents), Jo’s manuscript getting burned, Amy falling through the ice, and the week where the girls do no chores), but they’re background moments to Margaret’s volunteering and personal relationship to the war and abolition.
Miller also chose to address something that rarely get’s addressed in Little Women related works, the March family’s relative poverty. I don’t want to spoil this, but I appreciate the small connections that this choice has to the history of the Alcott family and the way that it’s really effective in characterizing Margaret.
It’s a Book About Grief and PArenting
I cried at Beth’s death in this book. I never cry when Beth dies. From the beginning, Margaret is open about the fact that she had a stillbirth after she and Mr. March were first married and how two decades later she still thinks about this. This fact combined with Beth’s death makes for an incredible emotional scene that had me sobbing.
The difficulties of parenting girls with four very different personalities are also explored in the book. The way Marmee worries about each of her girls in turn and actively grapples with parenting choices while her husband is away is really fascinating.
Secondary Characters are Developed!
Any Little Women retelling which gives Aunt March some actual character development is, I think, pretty deserving of praise. Even better than the development Aunt March got was the fact that Hannah gets to be an actual character instead of just a set piece and Miller really establishes a relationship and a rapport between Hannah and Margaret in a meaningful way. Plus the Hummels also get so much more page time than they do in Little Women that it’s a true tragedy when the baby dies and Beth gets scarlet fever. Mr. March also gets a little more development, but I still don’t really care that much about him anyways.
The Jump Between Part One and Part Two
Little Women has a significant time jump, it’s just part of life. It’s what happens. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet but Marmee is told through Margaret March’s diaries which, she tells us, she has been writing for many many years. I liked this it felt personal and allowed for a first-person narration in a way that didn’t feel out of place given the time period and the character. However, the time jump between the two parts and other big chunks of time that pass in the story didn’t work as well for me in Marmee because I had been told that Marmee fastidiously keeps a journal so I was left wondering if she hadn’t kept a journal in the intervening years for some reason rather than just accepting the time jump with no questions like it is easier to do in Little Women. That’s probably my only gripe with an otherwise incredible book.
Margaret has way fewer sexual feelings for Mr. March than Ma has for Pa in Miller’s Caroline. I, for one, was glad to see this was the case as the sexual desire really distracted me from the rest of the story in Caroline. What Margaret does long for is for someone to call her by her “Christian name” which only her husband does and she’s definitely a little touch starved while Mr. March is away.
In case I didn’t sell in hard enough. You should read this book if you’re a Little Women fan. I had a hard time putting it down!