A new novel imagines the Marches as black women.



The principle of the series is deceptively simple: what if the protagonists of classic literary works like Treasure island, The Wuthering Heights, and Robin Hood weren’t white? In April 2020, Feiwel and Friends, a young adult subdivision of Macmillan, announced the launch of a new project called Remixed Classics. According to Publishers Weekly, the idea came from a Twitter thread where New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie pondered how Batman would be different if Bruce Wayne was black. It is important to note that Bouie noted that “you could just [Batman] and that’s it, but I think there’s a real opportunity to reimagine the character as a black American, and how race shapes his past and the circumstances of his vigilante career.

The second title in the Remixed Classics series, a reimagining of Little woman by Bethany C. Morrow in which the March family is black, seizes this opportunity and runs with it. (The first title, A shock of steel, is a redesign of Treasure island which takes place in the South China Sea.)

So many beginnings may have been marketed as a remix of Little woman, but if we stick to the musical terminology, it might be more accurate to say that Morrow samples the Louisa May Alcott classic. Like the original novel, So many beginnings takes place during the Civil War and follows the trials and hardships of the March family. There are four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Anyone who has read Alcott’s book or seen any of the film versions will recognize the outlines. Margaret’s greatest ambition is to start a family of her own. Joanne wants to be a writer. Bethlehem wants little more than to help others. Amethyst is the pampered young artist of the group, although in So many beginnings she dances rather than paints. And they all adore their mothers (Morrow’s version is called Mammy rather than Marmee). March’s patriarch is absent, leaving the women to fend for themselves.

But that’s about where the similarities end. The original White Marches, living in Concord, Massachusetts, struggle primarily against the boundaries of genteel poverty in the absence of their primary breadwinner. The Steps of Morrow face something entirely different. Immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation, the Marches settled in a freedoms colony on Roanoke Island, along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Considered at the time as “smuggling camps” by the Union, the Civil War history of settlements and villages like Roanoke has been largely unexplored in non-fiction, let alone fiction. . “Word smuggling meant that even the soldiers and officers whose recent victories had won their freedom did not regard them as persons, ”writes Morrow. “Blacks were spoils of war, if they were more than a nuisance, and their greatest value was not being available to serve the Confederacy.” In the Union’s imagination, the Marches and their neighbors in Roanoke are not so much liberated people as confiscated goods. They are technically free, and while this freedom is dearly cherished, it also comes with conditions. It is these conditions that So many beginnings is largely concerned with – while each of the March sisters ultimately leave Roanoke, the majority of the book takes place in the years when they all live under one roof.

Similar to Little woman, So many beginnings is mainly carried by vignettes focusing on each of the sisters who establish their personalities and individual orientations towards what they describe as their “second life”. The novel begins with a visit to the Marches by a journalist from the North by the name of Joseph Williams who, unlike the family, was born free. Morrow is at his strongest when she details the tension inherent in the relationships formed and necessitated by the period. His portrayal of Williams’ relative ignorance when he impetuously calls on the recently freed slaves to view the war effort as their fight is also evocative, as is Mammy’s response: “You have to understand that we who needed this. war to become free know that this is our fight, whether we see the battle on the field or just every day. Describing the paternalism of a young white missionary who takes an interest in the Marches when Beth falls ill, Morrow writes that “Beth – and indeed all black people – had seen the kind of loving care that made her plans or animals. company, and anyway. , they were less than autonomous people, and as we always expected them to perform.

Yet sometimes the book is subject to the weight of education rather than entertainment. It’s a strain familiar to readers of historical romance novels written by and about black women. (This is a strain familiar also to readers of Alcott’s Little woman, including the message to 21st century smacks of Christian piety.) In many ways, it is up to the March family to rectify the ignorance of their contemporaries, whether they are the young missionary or a black patron from the North who wants Jo to write his tale of slave in a more “authentic” tone. The pressure to educate means that the sibling resentment that has sometimes stained Alcott’s novel is absent from Morrow’s. There’s no burning Jo’s book or negating Meg’s ambitions to get married. The Marches rarely fight, which means that So many beginnings doesn’t quite capture the sometimes tense nature of the siblings as well as Alcott’s original.

That doesn’t mean Morrow’s version isn’t without charm. She manages to fully appropriate a familiar story, and the rationale for omitting these parts of the story ultimately makes sense in its new context. Longing for marriage and motherhood means something quite different for a black woman less than a year old from an institution that cared little to separate children from their mothers and wives from their husbands, if they did. allowed to get married. And Jo’s writing career doesn’t just take into account the black tradition of oral storytelling, it depends almost entirely on her desire to be of service to her community in Roanoke. It wouldn’t make sense for her younger sister to try to sabotage this.

Yes, the names of the characters may be the same, but their stories are theirs and in some ways make Alcott’s version more satisfying. Unlike Jo d’Alcott, Morrow doesn’t end up with a random German teacher and although she finishes the romance single, she is still in a deeply committed relationship. One of the most beautiful parts of the book comes to the end when Jo finally confesses that she likes Laurie’s version of Morrow.

“I’m just scared,” Jo started, and her eyes fell. “That I don’t like like so many others do. And that I keep you of a better kind.

When she turned around, there was moisture in Lorie’s eyes.

“No,” he said.

“No?” she echoed, smirking and mimicking the nod. “That’s it?”

– That’s it, Jo, said Lorie, never breaking her gaze. “There is no better genre.”

It is a powerful affirmation of the many types of love, platonic and otherwise, that make up a busy life.

So many beginnings and the concept of racebending in general presents an interesting intellectual exercise, which makes readers wonder how much the supposed universality of a source text, especially a classic, relates to the whiteness of its typeface. How far do you have to bend something not before it breaks, but before it becomes something completely different? This is not to disparage Alcott’s version – I went so far as to read and like Little woman and its suites, which follow Jo’s exploits at the head of a boarding school for boys. But our favorite things always come out stronger after standing up to questioning, and while Morrow transmutes Alcott’s beloved classic the most, she isn’t the first to tinker with it. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation sparked a heated debate around her likeable portrayal of Amy and her ambiguous ending. As for the modern 2018 account of Little woman, all I will say is that it exists and Lucas Grabeel from Musical High School is in the cast.

Audiences often think of adaptations to be the same, comparing and contrasting the new with the old to find the differences, often mistaking the more faithful adaptation for the better. But what tomorrow So many beginnings shows that variations on a theme, even significant ones, are not betrayals of the source material. Maybe we can stop thinking about a worthy adaptation as the original’s twin and more as a sister.


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