Readers of Little Women are well aware that Louisa May Alcott based the beloved characters of that classic novel on her own family. Sarah Miller has drawn on Alcott’s mother Abigail’s memoirs to create an enthralling alternate version of the fictional March family. The events of Marmee dovetail exactly with those of Little Women, but are delivered in the form of Margaret March’s diaries, which capture the voice of a fiercely intelligent, passionate woman of the mid-19th century, as she experiences her and her daughters’ familiar joys and sorrows during and just after the American Civil War.
It’s well-documented that Alcott’s parents’ radicalism was toned down for the novel; Miller restores to “Marmee” Abigail’s commitment to social justice, her political acumen, her clear-eyed understanding of the limits of philanthropy, and what she calls her “temper,” which in a modern reader’s understanding, means her righteous fury at unfairness of all kinds. Her special ire—expressed in a delightfully sarcastic tone at times—is reserved for bigots, the idle rich, and for the sexism of her own time; however, it’s refreshing to also see the saintly Marmee rendered as a woman exasperated by her husband’s indifference to practical matters, her daughters’ occasional shallowness, and the unearned privilege of the wealthier women she depends on for funding her attempts to help the poor of Concord. Eventually, as readers of Little Women will anticipate, that temper will be vented at God as her darling Beth faces a mortal illness.
In Miller’s admirable hands, Marmee is heart-warming, sometimes heart-rending, but never cloying. Fans of Little Women will love this book almost as much; those who do not care for Alcott’s novel may find in Marmee a far more emotionally complex and satisfying portrait of family love and generosity in a politically realistic setting.