Mama Deb (mamadeb) wrote,
Mama Deb

Jo's Favorite Boy

I've been reading Louisa May Alcott recently (thank you, Project Gutenberg!) and just finished the March family trilogy.

Jo, who is LMA's alter ego, declares at some point in Little Women that she prefers boys to girls, and she proves it by opening a mostly boy's school by the end of the first book, and which forms the setting of the second, Little Men. This is where she introduces her most compelling character.

LM, and its sequel Jo's Boys, is full of boys - the fourteen or so that make up Jo and Fritz Bhaer's Plumfield school (plus the two little girls who are also students there.) Almost one quarter are relatives - the two orphan nephews plus Jo's sister's son. These are the "good" boys - Franz at sixteen has adult responsibilities, Emil has a temper of sorts, and is annoyingly nautical (which is interesting given that there is no sense that the boy has ever been to sea - they seem to have been born to German parents but in the US.)

And Demi is, of course, nearly perfect - bright, extremely pious, kind to all the others with perfect manners. He is believed to be capable of no wrong worse than the occasional fantasy. He's a little old man even at the age of ten. Good thing, since his father is that book's sacrifice (she doesn't do it in every book, but it does seem like LMA likes killing one character per novel.) As we see nothing of John Brooke until the chapter where he dies - well, the chapter still had me crying, but mostly I was thinking about his thirty-one year old wife, who seems to have decided that she's going to be a widow forever. Anyway, Demi is too perfect and rather hard to like.

She has a fat kid (who eats incessantly *sigh*), a stammerer, a boy with a bent back, a boy who suffered brain damage, a young man who tortures mice and turns wood, and the only villain - a "sharp", "clever" shopkeeper type who stole, lied about it, allowed two other boys to be villainized in his place, leaves and returns. The older boys never do forgive him, though, which is a good touch. She has Tommy Banks, who is sweet and naughty and it's clear that until the halfway point, he's LMA's favorite. Through Jo, we can see she actually doesn't like Nat, the introductory character, who has a weak mouth and chin, is sickly and not "manly" enough.

She has a couple of girls, too - Jo's niece Daisy and a girl brought in to be her friend so she shouldn't be the only one of her age and sex about the place. Daisy is also extremely good and "womanly" (domestic) - she sews well and keeps a book of needles with her; she does her doll's laundry meticulously; she dreams only of keeping house - first for her brother and later for Nat, whom she will marry. And she cooks - in what I think of as one of the most charming chapters in the book, she gets a tiny working cookstove. The narrative and the characters seem to approve of this, but given her best friend, I wonder. Because Nan is as much a troublemaker as Tommy, but she's bright and wants to be a doctor - and Jo approves, and she becomes so. She is not to marry, but that's also approved. And she's far more interesting than Daisy - Daisy gets almost nothing in JB, but Nan gets at least one chapter where she's heroic.

There's also Laurie's daughter, Bess, who is a princess in every way.

This is for another essay, but the girls in both books seem to have a secondary position to the boys that concerns me.

However, the girls are more complex - Nan is the doctor, Daisy the housewife, Bess the artist, Josie the actress (and Jo the writer) than the boys. Which is also interesting in its own way.

But this isn't about them. It's about Dan. Dan shows up partway through LM as a friend of Nat's, and he's totally unlike all the other boys in the story. He's bright - extremely bright - but he's undisciplined so he has a hard time in the classroom - not least being sitting still. He has more energy than he knows how to manage, he's very strong, he has a temper that burns very hot and he's resistant to all the "civilizing" things, including religion, that the Bhaers try to give him. He is, in fact, "manly" in a way that none of the other boys, including the paragons Franz and Demi, ever will be.

He's a tall, dark and handsome bad boy with a heart of gold. Yes, I know that sounds familiar.

He's essentially adopted by Jo as a son, and he treats her older son, Robbie, as a younger brother - looking for him when he gets lost, assuming that he'll carry the boy to bed. The professor accepts him and seems to care, but I don't get "father" from him - that's reserved for the unmanly boy that Bhaer calls his "daughter."

And then there's Teddy. Teddy is a toddler, barely verbal and still wearing dresses when Dan comes in, and this fourteen year old boy who has taken care of himself most of his life forms a bond with the little boy - a bond so strong that neither of his parents has any compunction of "his Dannny" babysitting, even putting the child to bed. When John Brooke dies and they have to take care of Meg and her family, they are relieved that Dan is taking care of the baby.

It's a relationship I can't define - it's not just big brother, and Teddy is too young for hero worship, and while Dan protects those weaker than him, this is different. It's not father-and-son, it's not friendship. It's an incredibly strong bond that never weakens as the boys grow older and Dan's life continues to deviate from Ted's in every respect. If they were the same age, well, I'd be writing stories about them. It's as intense as any "buddy" pair we've ever seen.

Dan ends up in prison - he killed a man in defense of himself and a young man who reminded him of Ted - and finds religion. He becomes a hero, saving lives, and comes home ill and injured (Dan is always coming home ill and injured), requiring nursing from his foster mother and from Ted. And he also decides that when he is well, he'll do what he can for the American Indians he's grown to love and respect as he traveled around the country. They refer to that as going on "mission", but I seriously don't see him as preaching - just defending. And he does eventually die a hero defending his people.

He also has this thing to make him even more tragic - he's in love with Bess, the "princess", who is a sheltered rich man's daughter and no one, not even he, thinks he's worthy to marry her, so they make sure he leaves as soon as he can while she's on a trip with her parents, and they never see him again. He goes into exile so that he never sees Bess again - she can't marry a poor, homeless ex-prisoner.

Dan's character is vividly colored in a collection of pale archetypes and morals - he's deeper and richer and more complex with motivations that feel real, not tacked on as perfect morals. He's also an archetype himself - tall, dark, handsome, dangerous, but also sweet and gentle and loving. He's the lead in a romance novel, destined to win the heart of the reluctant noblewoman or the frontier schoolteacher, or the rich woman who owns the horse ranch. Except, he doesn't - the heart he holds closest is that of a boy ten years his junior - and whom he abandons as much as he abandons Bess.

I don't think there's another similar character in any of her other "girl's books".
Tags: dan, essay, jo's boys, louisa may alcott
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