Title: So Many Beginnings
Author: Bethany C. Morrow
Publisher: Feiwel Friends
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Four young Black sisters come of age during the American Civil War in So Many Beginnings, a warm and powerful YA remix of the classic novel Little Women by national bestselling author Bethany C. Morrow.
North Carolina, 1863. As the American Civil War rages on, the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island is blossoming, a haven for the recently emancipated. Black people have begun building a community of their own, a refuge from the shadow of the old life. It is where the March family has finally been able to safely put down roots with four young daughters:
Meg, a teacher who longs to find love and start a family of her own.
Jo, a writer whose words are too powerful to be contained.
Beth, a talented seamstress searching for a higher purpose.
Amy, a dancer eager to explore life outside her family’s home.
As the four March sisters come into their own as independent young women, they will face first love, health struggles, heartbreak, and new horizons. But they will face it all together.
So Many Beginnings takes the classic Little Women story outline and turns it into something new and unexpected — truly a remix, rather than a retelling.
As the author explained during an interview with NPR:
Were you one of those people who read Little Women over and over when you were young, and was that part of the reason you agreed to write your new book?
I want to start by saying I have no recollection of reading the original.
Seriously? And you didn’t read it before you started writing?
I had no intention of reading it. As I told the editor, it would not matter. I am writing a story about four Black girls in 1863. It does not matter what a group of white girls was doing; that has no bearing on it. I will say that I, like a lot of people my age, was very in love with the 1994 film adaptation, so if there’s any similarity, I would expect it to be closer to a couple of elements from that film. Basically, Little Women is considered historical fiction, but as a Black woman, I have been excluded from that narrative. It seems like the kind of property that no matter how many times it’s revisited, it’s the same. It’s for white girls.Read the full interview at https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/09/12/187316369/little-women-remixed-but-not-reimagined
Here, the March family is recently freed from enslavement, living in the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. While the father is away working with the Corinth Freedmen’s Colony, Mammy and her four daughters live together in a life full of love, but not without struggle.
The sisters are absolutely devoted to one another and to Mammy, but they’re each very different. Their lives are full of work and often frustrations. Being free does not mean being truly in control of their lives or free from discrimination and otherness, as is made plain by the white missionaries and Union soldiers who control so much of the day-to-day life of the people of Roanoke.
I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book told from the perspective of formerly enslaved young women, and the writing here is incredibly powerful in showing the impact on the sisters’ worldview, sense of self, and need for true liberation. The book absolutely shows that even those abolitionists devoted to emancipation weren’t necessarily devoted to the concept of equality. While the term micro-aggression wouldn’t have existed at the time, the concept itself is very plainly evident in even the most well-meaning but still hurtful of exchanges. As Meg and Jo discuss:
“…So why does it enrage me?”
“Because,” Jo told her. “They’re only ever speaking for us, and about us. Rarely with us. Even when they have our best interest in mind, how could they know it without our input? The person who believes they know best, still, in some small way in some interior place they’ve yet to interrogate, does not truly comprehend equality…”
So Many Beginnings preserves many of the characteristics of the March sisters, but with shifts in meaning and importance. Amy is not a spoiled, obnoxious brat here (yes, my anti-Amy bias is showing!) — instead, Amethyst, called Amy, is cherished and protected. As the youngest child, she doesn’t remember enslavement the way the older sisters do, and the family is determined to help her hold onto the joy of innocence for as long as possible, even if that means indulging her and not making demands of her. Beth is really interesting here as well. While still sickly, she’s also inspired by a higher purpose and an ambition that propel her forward. Meg and Jo too, while sticking to some basic framework (Meg dreams of marriage, Jo uses her words to change the world), have a completely different set of experiences and motivations. The characters are each unique and fascinating.
I was not aware of the American Colonization Society or of the history of Roanoke Island before reading this book, and it’s eye-opening to realize how much of the American past is still not discussed in meaningful ways. Hopefully, So Many Beginnings will bring awareness and stimulate discussions amongst its readers, particularly within its target YA audience.
So Many Beginnings is a powerful, moving, and lovely novel. I enjoyed both the Little Women framework and the new take on the story, and most especially, the March sisters themselves.
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