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If you’re a regular reader, you know that in the last year or so I’ve been revisiting some of my favorite childhood books and plumbing the darker depths of those stories.
While I’ve done a bit of rereading of the originals, mostly what I’ve done is seek out new perspectives on a few of my most-loved children’s classics: specifically Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women.
I never officially meant to launch this as a project for myself, but it came about organically as new books and screen adaptations caught my attention. What’s been intriguing about revisiting these old favorites is the way these new pieces steer away from the relentlessly sunny stories and characters we all know and love. While those aspects are still there, the characters are granted greater complexity and historical context that make revisiting the stories as an adult very rewarding.
The Deep Damage of Anne Shirley
Anne is quite possibly one of the most relentlessly positive characters I’ve ever come across. And while I classify Anne of Green Gables here as a childhood favorite–in all honesty it wasn’t my childhood favorite. I’m pretty sure I read it as a kid, but I didn’t remember it very well. I never watched the adaptation made in the 80s that so many Anne fans adored.
So this over-the-top positivity took me aback a little when I decided to read Anne again last year. I wasn’t actually sure I could continue at first–was she for real? Did she ever stop talking? (Okay, as an introverted parent of two kids who LOVE to talk, maybe I age myself by relating to Marilla a bit on that question.)
Maybe the world that Anne sees–magical and bathed in beauty–is what has made it so appealing to readers for so long. I think readers who fall in love with Anne as children hold on the idyllic world she builds through her wide-eyed wonder and creativity.
But it’s clear to an adult reader that there is more to Anne’s magical outlook than an over-developed sense of wonderment. Anne had a tough childhood, and she is again facing the possibility of being unwanted. In the book, she briefly–and fairly matter-of-factly–mentions past homes she’s lived in where she was mistreated. While those scenes aren’t elaborated on in the book, they do hint at the coping mechanisms that Anne has developed.
The Netflix adaptation, Anne with an E (which I love, but I know many Anne purists do not), goes deeper into Anne’s damage and the life she led before coming to Avonlea. Scenes of abuse, both from past homes and from the orphanage, are interspersed with Anne’s current sunny life, and they appear as disturbing flashbacks when something happens to remind Anne of those times. She is clearly traumatized and terrified of going back to those places or reliving similar experiences. But rather than holing up, she reaches for the magical and deeply appreciates the moments of beauty in her life–knowing they could be fleeting.
And that, as an adult, is what finally drew me into Anne’s world. She is a more complicated character than she first seems, and while there are many characters who are damaged in literature, there aren’t as many who handle it by approaching the world openly and with positivity. This sometimes backfires on Anne, and there are also times when she’s not able to overcome her negative impulses–which makes it all the more fascinating to watch her move through the world.
The Constant Struggle and Heartbreak of Prairie Life
What I remember about reading the Little House books was the coziness and simplicity of them. Yes, there was constant hard work, but that work was just the stuff of life. There was routine to it, both day-to-day and season-to-season. Pa and Ma always knew what to do and they taught with gentle patience. Laura and Mary were not perfect children, but they had an innate sense of right and wrong and always quickly course-corrected (either themselves, or through that gentle direction of their parents).
Even during the hardest of times–that Long Winter, especially–any real suffering seemed impossible, because Pa and Ma had super-human-like abilities to devise creative solutions to carry them through anything.
This was not, of course, the reality. Even reading between the lines of the original texts as an adult shows Charles as less than down-to-earth and sometimes indifferent to how his dreams affected his long-suffering wife and their tiny children. While Laura Ingalls Wilder changed the timeline of her life story when she wrote the fictional Little House books, the book Caroline: Little House, Revisited puts it back in proper place and reveals that Laura’s age at the time of the family’s move to Indian Territory was a mere 3-years-old.
And while Caroline’s story is fictionalized as well, the author finally gives voice to the difficulties she faced. While her famous stoicism remains on the surface, the challenges of young children, her fears, her loneliness, and her uncertainties are revealed–no one is as all-knowing as Wilder portrayed Caroline. As children, we were treated to Laura’s adventures; as adults, we still get to enjoy them, while also appreciating the heavy load born by Caroline.
Shattered, too, was my view of Pa as an unquestionably brilliant, moral, man of the land. To my mind, he was always a hard-working farmer (no doubt prompted by memories of a sweaty Michael Landon always coming in from the fields–who, by the way, was not treated so kindly in the new Wilder biography).
The truth was, though Charles Ingalls aspired to be a farmer, he actually had little success in farming. For most of his life, he moved his family from place to place while taking up odd jobs. Lingering debt, poor choices, bad weather, illness, grasshopper plagues, and politics all played roles in his ultimate failure as a farmer. At one point, the family left a rough town in the middle of the night to avoid paying debts–the town and this incident were entirely left out of the Little House books.
Learning all of these things as an adult doesn’t change how I remember the books or my enjoyment of them as a child. Instead, I choose to appreciate the more nuanced look at the seemingly simple lives that fascinated me. The added historical context is also helpful; I realize that I very much saw the pioneer life in a vacuum, without much consideration for the other things happening in the country at the time. This was post-Civil War, post slavery (but extremely racist), and right in the middle of the government “dealing with” the Native American tribes that populated the west.
I also appreciate the critical looks at racist attitudes in the books, rather than a simple dismissal of them as “of the time.” Certain things are cringe-worthy, of course–Ma’s attitudes toward Native Americans and Pa’s participation in a minstrel show–but there are also moments of progressive attitudes from both Laura and Pa (interesting in themselves, considering Wilder’s deeply conservative political views later in life).
The Poverty and War Surrounding the Little Women
Little Women is another childhood classic that presents a sunny, cozy picture of life during the dark time in which it’s set (the Civil War). In the original book, we see little of Mr. March, who is away serving as a chaplain for the Union army. At home are the four famous sisters and their steadfast mother, Marmee–another matriarch who is unfailingly moral and filled with ingenuity during difficult times.
While there has been a recent screen adaptation of Little Women (the latest one on PBS), it unfortunately failed to capture my attention–I didn’t even finish the three-part series. What I did find fascinating, though, was a book by Geraldine Brooks called March, which gave an account of Mr. March’s experiences while away at war.
As a child, I gave little thought to Mr. March and what was happening to him while he was away. I never imagined grave danger, or moral quandaries, or first-hand experiences with slavery. While Brooks’s account is fictional, it’s also heavily based on the letters and diaries of Bronson Alcott–Louisa May Alcott’s father. The book includes encounters with Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson–not just as a historical wink-nudge, but because the Alcotts were actually friends with them.
The transcendentalist philosophies that loosely overlay Little Women are more blatant in March, and both Mr. and Mrs. March struggle mightily with their own failings and moral dilemmas.
While the girls are not central in March (it’s not a retelling in the same way that Caroline is for Little House) their upbringing and the depths of their poverty–presented in Little Women as more genteel and manageable than it actually was–comes into sharper focus.
And, for another view of Little Women (which I also shared last month in my weekly link up): The Lie of Little Women.
Reading as an Adult vs. Reading as a Child
As an adult reader who just always wants to know more, I love these new perspectives on old classics. Some are nonfiction, or based on nonfiction sources, while many are reimaginings. Some follow the structure of the original story, but aiming the adaptations at adults allows for mining of darker aspects that the authors chose not to include in the original classics.
Leaving these aspects out doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Astute child readers may pick up on them; others may not. But the books we read as children stay with us, and revisiting them in new ways as adults can allow us to go deeper into the stories we love.
Of course, not every adult appreciates these new perspectives. They enjoy the pristine worlds they remember from childhood and they don’t want them to change, or reveal a dark side.
Ultimately, they are just stories, and every reader gets to choose how they engage them.
I’m curious how others feel about darker sides of childhood classics being revealed. Does this deepen your appreciation of the original, or do you avoid the reinterpretations and adaptations?