Goodreads: So Many Beginnings
Series: None (but part of the Remixed Classics line)
Age Category: Young Adult
It’s 1863 and the American Civil War is at its midpoint as four sisters and their mother work to make a life for themselves in the Freedmen’s Colony at Roanoke Island. There’s Meg, a teacher who longs to be a mother. Jo, a young woman with a way with words. Beth, a talented seamstress. And Amy, an aspiring dancer. Life is not easy, but the girls support each other through it all.
So Many Beginnings is a fascinating retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in that it takes inspiration from Alcott’s work, but chooses to tell a story all its own. While the basic idea is the same–four sisters are coming of age during the Civil War–almost everything else has changed. Readers cannot expect to see similar incidents in the book, even of something as vague as a failed picnic or a party gone awry, nor can they expect the romances to follow the same patterns. This is a wholly new tale with wholly new characters. It is one, however, that seems almost more concerned with getting history right than it seems concerned with telling a story.
Like many works of historical fiction published today, So Many Beginnings is eager to teach its readers about the proper way to view the past. In so doing, it sometimes feels anachronistic. The characters cannot be presented as actual people from the 1860s because readers might mistakenly think that their views, which are now considered outdated or even offensive, are something they should agree with. So the book is full of characters musing about how to interpret certain moments in history or even brief mentions of things like “therapy” for soldiers–even though PTSD was not recognized or treated in quite the same way as it is now–because educating impressionable readers is the focus of the book.
Many readers will likely enjoy the informative aspects of the book. The Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island is not necessarily a part of history taught in schools, so Morrow takes care to bring it to the forefront. The characters have many conversations about what is happening, how they see the Union as failing them, and how they wish well-meaning white folks would actually listen to them–the people living there–and give them agency. Jo also begins a newsletter about the colony, with excerpts periodically provided in the book. Readers may just be inspired by all the information to keep on researching this overlooked part of history.
The characters, however, seem to fall a bit by the wayside during the story. And, in a seeming effort to make the book happier, Morrow removes much of the conflict that makes the original characters come alive. Here, Jo does not feel sorrow at potentially losing Meg to a suitor, but whole-heartedly supports her in getting married. Jo does not even feel much annoyance at Amy (Amethyst), who is made more winning and less insufferable. Beth (Bethlehem), as in apparently every retelling of Little Women, does not die and actually has more confidence and vision for a future life than any of the other characters. The picture is of a loving, supportive family who almost never disagree or have any problems. Any slight disturbances they feel are quickly forgiven and forgotten. It makes the family seem ideal, yes, but what is Jo without a temper and without the fear of losing her sisters? What is Amy without her pride and desire for wealth? Conflict and flaws are what makes a story interesting.
Even the writing style proves a bit disappointing. The sentences often seem stilted. Unusual word orders occur frequenly, making it necessary to reread parts to gain understanding. And Jo, who is supposed to be a magician with words, talks in an overly elaborate and formal way that seems more awkward than anything else.
I had been looking forward to this retelling for months, but I have to admit that I found the reading experience a bit lackluster. I enjoyed learning more about history, but did not find the story itself engaging, and had trouble deciphering some of the prose. It is worth checking out for readers who enjoy historical fiction and who want to learn more about the Freedmen’s Colony at Roanoke Island. But a nonfiction book would likely work just as well, with the benefit that readers will not be expecting more than a factual account.