Little Men by Louisa May Alcott

Nov 25, 2015

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott book review
I've read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott a couple of times but never delved into any of her other books. One of my goals this year was to read another classic from a female author I already knew I liked, and so I decided to try Little Men.

I don't know quite what I expected, but I had no idea that in this sweet story about Jo March Bhaer and her rambunctious houseful of boys, I would find my parenting bible. I'm not even kidding. This book touched me to the core and inspired me in more ways than I can say. Jo is not so much a kindred spirit to me as a mentor. Our personalities are nothing alike, but her sympathy towards and astute handling of boys are nonetheless attributes that I want to emulate and adopt.

As you might remember from Little Women, the Bhaers were gifted the large estate of Plumfield to turn into a school for boys. When this story opens, the school is comprised of ten boys plus the Bhaer's two sons, Rob and Teddy, plus Jo's niece, Daisy, so thirteen children in all. It's a lively bunch, and it only grows more lively when Nat, a young orphan, joins the group. (As Nat is waiting in the entryway, he sees a boy come crashing down the banister, and I had to laugh when it said that it was "a crash that would have broken any head but one rendered nearly as hard as a cannonball by eleven years of constant bumping." I'm pretty sure my own Clark is well on his way to such a head as that.) Nat is a quiet boy who desires to please his benefactors (although he does have one ill habit of telling lies that must be dealt with), and he settles into the mix fairly easily.

The real drama begins when he invites an acquaintance, Dan, to also come and live at Plumfield. Dan has had a hard life, and it shows in his anger and bitterness. His manners are coarse, he won't follow the rules, and he picks fights with the other boys. Mr. Bhaer is worried that this is one boy they won't be able to help. But Jo sees the goodness in him and won't give up on him.

Some people will read this book and see a quaint story told with old-fashioned language. But in spite of this, I found much of it so relatable and brilliant that I was constantly jotting down ideas and dog-earring pages. For example:
  • Jo has a "Sunday closet" filled with "picture-books, paint-boxes, architectural blocks, little diaries, and materials for letter-writing." She says, "I want my boys to love Sunday, to find it a peaceful, pleasant day, when they can rest from common study and play, yet enjoy quiet pleasures, and learn, in simple ways, lessons more important than any taught in school." Sundays are always tricky days for us around here because our kids get bored and restless, so I really loved Jo's foresight to reserve some enjoyable activities specifically for Sunday--both to make it a more enjoyable day and to teach the boys how to enjoy the blessing of rest.
  • Jo keeps a record of each boy throughout the week and then meets with him one-on-one on Sunday to go over that record. She praises him for his good choices and offers some constructive criticism for the mistakes he's made. Each boy knows that she cares about him, his well-being, and his improvement. He knows that she's watching him throughout the week and observing his triumphs and his setbacks. He knows that he can openly talk to her about anything. This is the way to build solid, trusting relationships with each other.
  • Jo allows the boys to have a pillow fight every Saturday night. She recognizes a boy's need for wild fun and gives it to him. But then, when it's time for the pillow fight to be over, she expects them to stop and respect her wishes. This is only one example of the natural give-and-take that is a part of Jo's relationship with her boys. She respects them, and they, in turn, respect her.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer value the outdoors and know how important they are to a boy's health and well-being. Lessons are important but only in moderation.
  • Jo values the treasures of little boys. At one point, Dan says, "I suppose you threw away my bundle of plunder?" (little shells and stones and birds' eggs he found on his journey). Sadly, if it had been our home, he probably would have been right, but Jo says, "No, I kept it, for I thought they must be treasures of some kind, you took such care of them." She just as this quiet kinship with boys and their interests that I admire very much.
  • She's realistic. When they're going through a pleasant, peaceful spell, she thinks, "It is too good to last." She knows that raising boys is an exciting ride and that it's never wise to get too comfortable with the current setup. 
But all of these lessons paled when I read the chapter about Dan coming home. Dan, as I mentioned above, has had a difficult life. He doesn't trust anyone, and he wants the upper hand on everything. He doesn't believe Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer when they say they're happy he's come to stay with them and that they know he can turn his life around (and really, even though they say it, they don't entirely believe it themselves). Dan repeatedly breaks the rules, and Mr. Bhaer shows mercy, but eventually (after an incident involving smoking in the bedroom that leads to a small fire), Dan goes too far and they make the difficult choice to send him away in the hopes that he will someday come back with a changed heart.

When Dan eventually does indeed return, it is one of the most touching scenes in literature I've ever read. Jo catches him fast asleep behind a little haycock, and when she wakes him, he's still half-asleep and says, "Mother Bhaer, I've come home." She knows then that he's ready to try. I was worried from the outset that Dan's story would not be believable. I had a feeling that he would be reformed, but he was so convincingly rough and mean-spirited that I didn't know if I would be able to believe any sort of transformation or change of temperament.

But here's the thing: When Jo goes in to tell Mr. Bhaer than Dan has come back, she says, "But, dear, you'll be very kind to him, no matter how gruff he seems. I am sure that is the way to conquer him." And with that sentence, I knew it was true. Love can overturn the roughest of souls, and if anyone could show pure love, it was Jo. She went on to say, "He won't bear sternness nor much restraint, but a soft word and infinite patience will lead him as it used to lead me." This said even more than the "love will win him back" statement. Jo somehow inherently knew how much they could push him and when it was time to hold back, and she knew it because she had a bit of that rebellious spirit in her as well. She felt a kinship to Dan, and she was willing to believe in him because of it. I feel like I could read this chapter over and over again and there would still be lessons to glean about how to parent with love and compassion.
The book ends on Thanksgiving. I didn't know it would, and so you can imagine that I was giving myself high-fives over my perfect timing. Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer spend the day rejoicing in all of the wonderful progress that their boys have made. It's been a fruitful year, and they feel so blessed. The whole group that is gathered in their home sing these words,

Summer days are over,
Summer work is done;
Harvests have been gathered
Gayly one by one.
Now the feast is eaten,
Finished is the play;
But one rite remains for
Our Thanksgiving-day.

Best of all the harvest
In the dear God's sight,
Are the happy children
In the home tonight,
And we come to offer
Thanks where thanks are due,
With grateful hearts and voices,
Father, mother, unto you.

The boys gather round Father and Mother Bhaer. They hold them in a gigantic embrace. As I read the final lines, there was an almost tangible feeling of love and goodwill. They know the days ahead will not be perfect (even in the midst of this happiness, Jo was probably reminding herself, "It is too good to last"). There will be more bumps in the road, more Sunday one-on-one sessions where they talk about the notes in the little notebook, more consequences (both pleasant and unpleasant). But each boy knows that Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer's love for them is unfailing. It will always be there--a constant beacon to guide them through the storms of life.

And at the end of the day, that is exactly what I want for my own little men.


  1. Little Men and Jo's Boys are my favourite. Truthfully I haven't ever read Little Women in full, can't stand it, too sweet but love Jo's books.

  2. Actually sweet isn't the word regards my reaction to LW but I find a couple of the girls irritating.

  3. I love Little Men, but haven't read it since becoming a parent. You've made me want to give it another look. And your post just generally made me smile. Thanks! Happy Thanksgiving!

    I did try to read Little Women a couple of years ago and didn't get very far.

  4. I really like many of Alcott's books, but I do get a lot of parenting advice from Little Men. There's somewhere in there where Jo says something like "all my plans fail a few times before they work" and I remember that -- when you try something new (reading aloud at breakfast or whatever) don't give it up it doesn't work the first few times.


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