“Keep good company, read good books, love good things and cultivate soul and body as faithfully as you can…” –Rose In Bloom

My friends and readers of this blog are likely to know that I consider Louisa May Alcott to be in my list of very favorite authors. I say very favorite even though Diane would remind me that the word “very” rarely adds anything of substance to a statement, because in this particular case I think that we bibliophiles are apt to have “favorites” and “very favorites.” Very favorite to me means an author I cannot live without. While some consider her old-fashioned, preachy, unrealistic, and strident, I find her to be balm for this world-weary mama’s heart, and a friend to the innocent tender-hearted young people in my life. In Rose In Bloom, I think she demonstrates particular skill as an inspirational and sophisticated storyteller.  

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“It does seem to me that some one might write stories that should be lively, natural, and helpful tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have.” Eight Cousins

In a format that is similar to the Jo March books, Alcott wrote a pair of books about Rose Campbell and her seven male cousins. Eight Cousins is easily compared to Little Men, and is at least equally charming. Shy and sickly Rose Campbell, is an orphaned heiress. After the death of her parents she moves to the “Aunt Hill” – a neighborhood of houses occupied by aunts, great aunts, and cousins while she waits for her guardian, Uncle Alec, to return from foreign travel. Because of a family estrangement, Rose barely knows her extended family, and her grief is compounded by the strangeness of her new situation and so many family members to know and try to please. Very quickly, however, Uncle Alec returns home to set things to rights and all is more than well.

“If she really had any doubt, the look in Dr. Alec’s face banished it without a word, as he opened wide his arms and she ran into them, feeling that home was here.” ―Eight Cousins

When the reader enters into Eight Cousins, Rose has been living with her great-aunts for a year. She has been smothered with their strong Victorian notions of girlhood and generally finds her situation to be suffocating. A submissive child, she is docile and complies with all of their whims, but she is sickly and painfully shy. She fears the day that Uncle Alec will return because she hardly knows him and worries that she will not be able to adequately please him.

“If you dear little girls would only learn what real beauty is, and not pinch and starve and bleach yourselves out so, you’d save an immense deal of time and money and pain. A happy soul in a healthy body makes the best sort of beauty for man or woman.” –Eight Cousins

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Alcott spares us any anxiety on this point. Uncle Alec enters the scene quickly and with as much genuine charm as any character Alcott has ever written. Uncle Alec loves and respects his aunts and sisters, but he, a doctor, quickly surmises that they have been ruining the poor child. He asserts his rights as guardian and prescribes for Rose a classic Alcott regimen: healthy exercise, nourishing food, good and beautiful books, lovely adventures, and hearty play with her cousins. He also goes to war with the aunts over Rose’s “costume,” freeing the girl from the constricting corset, the unsuitable fabrics, and any garment which dresses Rose up to look older than her youthful age. Without apology, Alcott is giving us a clear prescription for social and educational reform in the way in which Uncle Alec tailors Rose’s experiences. Due to exciting and creative circumstances, he also gets to try his hand at helping Phoebe (the little maid similarly aged to Rose), and cousin Mac.

“What do you want?” and Rose looked up rather surprised.

“I’d like to borrow some money. I shouldn’t think of asking you, only Mac never has a cent since he’s set up his old chemical shop, where he’ll blow himself to bits some day and you and Uncle will have the fun of putting him together again,” and Steve tried to look as if the idea amused him.” ―Eight Cousins

My children were in fits of giggles throughout the story and moped around for two days after it ended because they missed the Campbell cousins. Alcott loves boys! She writes about boyish antics with so much joy and humor that it is impossible not to love them all. The girls have plenty of fun too.  By the time the story is over, the characters feel real to the reader and we are sorry to see the curtain come down on the play.

“Uncle, I have discovered what girls are made for,” said Rose, the day after the reconciliation of Archie and the Prince.

“Well, my dear, what is it?” asked Dr. Alec…

“To take care of boys,” answered Rose, quite beaming with satisfaction as she spoke.” Phebe laughed when I told her, and said she thought girls had better learn to take care of themselves first. But that’s because she hasn’t got seven boy-cousins as I have.”

“She is right, nevertheless, Rosy, and so are you, for the two things go together, and in helping seven lads you are unconsciously doing much to improve one lass,” Eight Cousins

If Little Men was the school version of education reform, Eight Cousins is the home version of social reform.

At the end of Eight Cousins, we leave Rose and Phoebe as they are about to depart on an adventure designed to “properly finish” them before their coming of age. Eight Cousins is a delightful read aloud and family friendly down to the youngest listener. The audio by Barbara Caruso is particularly lovely.

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“Yes, Phebe was herself now, and it showed in the change that came over her at the first note of music. No longer shy and silent, no longer the image of a handsome girl, but a blooming woman, alive and full of the eloquence her art gave her, as she laid her hands softly together, fixed her eye on the light, and just poured out her song as simply and joyfully as the lark does soaring toward the sun.”-Rose in Bloom

When the curtain comes up on Rose in Bloom, Rose and Phoebe are on the deck of a steamer ship which is coming into port. This imagery is appropriate and makes it clear to the reader that this is a different kind of story from Eight Cousins. If Eight Cousins is equally charming to Little Men, it is a pleasant surprise that Rose in Bloom is markedly better than Jo’s Boys. Readers of the Jo March books seem to agree that her final Plumfield installment disappoints on many levels and seems to reveal a creative tiredness on Alcott’s part. Chief among the complaints, I think, is that she tries to tell too many stories by involving all of the characters. In Rose in Bloom, Alcott wisely prunes the character list by sending half of the cousins out into the world and restricting her story chiefly to Rose, Phoebe, and Mac.

If I were pressed to choose my very favorite Alcott book, it would be this one. Despite my deep love for Plumfield, the girl in me cannot ignore the beautiful romances of this story. But more than that, this, of all of her stories, seems to have the most well-constructed story arc. It is a satisfying story, beautifully told, with romantic thrills. Rose, Phoebe, Charlie, Archie, Mac, and the family generally are complex characters with realistic motivations and relatable habits.

“My little girl, I would face a dozen storms far worse than this to keep your soul as stainless as snow; for it is the small temptations which undermine integrity, unless we watch and pray, and never think them too trivial to be resisted.” ― Rose in Bloom

More so than in any of her other books, Alcott takes young adult challenges head on and allows us to see the consequences of decision making. We are genuinely in fear for Rose’s moral happiness for more than a few chapters and we cheer for her when things come right in the end.

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A friend on instagram said about this book that “quotes in that book slay me.” I could not agree more! Quintessentially Alcott, the quotes from this story are short sermons that are appropriately heavy-handed. While they might feel obnoxious in some other story, in this one, they are just what is needed. In our Gene Stratton-Porter articles, Diane talks about Porter being a watchman on the wall decrying the destruction of morals in American culture. There is no question that Alcott is of the same breed. What I love about both of these authors is that they masterfully created characters whom we care enough about to let them be real to us. And in so doing, we hear these sermons with our hearts and apply them to our lives.

“I thought it was only a habit, easy to drop when I liked: But it is stronger than I; and sometimes I feel as if possessed of a devil that will get the better of me, try as I may”  Rose In Bloom

A wonderful coming-of-age story to hand to a maturing teenage girl, this book is probably not well-suited to the whole family as a read aloud. In this story, each of the young people wrestles with at least one coming-of-age challenge, and not all succeed in their moral quest. While Alcott is always wholesome, in this text she shows the dangers of alcohol abuse. Without meaning to spoil, I must remind the reader that Alcott tries to keep things realistic, and that usually means that at least one character dies. In this story, the death of a major character is poignant. But even in that, she gives us a beautiful gift in that she lets us see how the character prepares the heart and soul for death through repentance. A bit like David Copperfield, this morality tale makes us suffer while it teaches us its good lesson.   

“No woman should give her happiness into the keeping of a man without fixed principles…” ― Rose In Bloom

I love Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl and think the little romances in it are pure delight. I think the romantic stories in this one are at least as good but probably better. Alcott successfully keeps us in suspense and throws in some curveballs that make the characters more real and more exciting.

One more fun thing! In this story, Cousin Mac spends some time in the mountains – with Thoreau! Alcott’s father was a close friend of Thoreau, so I loved seeing this inclusion. While the transcendental poet does not appear in the story itself, Mac raves about him and Emerson, and it is clear that Alcott is shaping Mac’s character with the best of those values that the Transcendentals had to offer.

Such a well-constructed set of stories, I have to think that Alcott learned from her earlier works and honed her craft while writing these. Eight Cousins comes almost ten years after Little Women, five years after , and four years after Little Men. As Alcott matured as a writer, her stories took on more and more themes of educational and societal reform. In many ways, I think this pair of books was the pinnacle of her fiction writing. Later works like Jack and Jill and Under the Lilacs were less robust stories (although still very charming) and more about philosophy than character development and story arc. I think Rose got the best of Alcott’s storytelling such that her philosophy was naturally expressed in her characters of Uncle Alec, Rose, Aunt Jessie, and Cousin Mac.

“Finish (the book) if you choose only remember, my girl, that one may read at forty what is unsafe at twenty, and that we never can be too careful what food we give that precious yet perilous thing called imagination.” – Rose in Bloom

A word to those who have seen the modern claims that Alcott was a repressed feminist who hated writing for children: read these two books and the matter will be settled in your mind. There is no possible way that someone who hated writing for children could so lovingly construct these characters and so masterfully guide them through interesting story development. It is ridiculous to say the least. And! Alcott as much as says so herself in each book when she censures the corrosive nature of what was passing for modern literature of her day. A feminist she surely was – but the kind of feminist we can all celebrate. A feminist who wanted young men and women to realize their full potential by exercising their bodies, nourishing their moral imagination, cultivating their good taste, nurturing their good will and charity, and developing their spiritual integrity. Alcott is the right kind of feminist for every age.