“Prairie” cultists may well relish such details, and “Caroline” comes to us with the authorization of the “Little House” estate. My greatest relief was that Jack, the brindle bulldog with a terrific bark, survived the transfer intact.
THE OTHER ALCOTT
By Elise Hooper
432 pp. William Morrow Paperbacks. $15.99.
Jo March, the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women,” inspired generations of literary women, from Simone de Beauvoir and Gertrude Stein to Joyce Carol Oates. Hooper takes her place among the acolytes with “The Other Alcott,” pushing another little woman to the forefront: May Alcott, Louisa’s younger sister.
Readers will remember May by her fictional anagram in “Little Women,” Amy, she of the fetching blond curls, maladroit malapropisms (she says “samphire” when she means “vampire”) and inchoate artistic ambitions. The self-centered imp torches Jo’s precious manuscript, which the would-be novelist has slaved over and intended to present to her war-veteran father. Amy March is the character “Little Women” lovers love to hate, perhaps because she is just too adorable.
As presented in this novel, the life of May Alcott contains the familiar petty narcissism alongside intense creative ambition. After Louisa publishes “Little Women” to raves, May frets because her illustrations are roundly panned by critics. In “The Other Alcott,” May more than realizes her artistic dreams, traveling to Boston, London and Paris to study painting. Her adventures illuminate the world of intrepid female artists in the late 1800s, a milieu too little appreciated today.
“The Other Alcott” comes alive in its development of the relationship between Louisa and May, the manuscript drafter and the manuscript scorcher. Hooper’s novel positively trounces Louisa, ridiculing her writerly aspirations, her vanity when fame knocks and her sanitization of the Alcotts in writing the fictional March family. “People see me as a figure of reckoning,” Louisa brags after her literary star ascends. “I like it.” But her manic writing spells serve to diminish her, leaving her with “dull eyes” which, “along with a smudge of ink on her cheekbone, made her look weary and battered.”
The rival sisters find themselves at war, with May hating her dependence on Louisa’s income and Louisa using that support to control May. It’s anything but the cozy, loving March household we see in “Little Women.” The revamped story is refreshing, even if some fictive holograph pages had to burn to create this portrait.
By Alexandra Silber
336 pp. Pegasus Books. $25.95.
Sholem Aleichem’s exuberant novel-in-installments, “Tevye the Dairyman,” published in Yiddish between 1894 and 1916, today lives in the twin shadows of its adaptations: “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Tony-winning Broadway musical, and the Oscar-nominated movie by the same title. An accomplished actress, Silber has played the role of Tzeitel in “Fiddler” on Broadway, and of Hodel on the West End. The latter experience embodying Tevye’s second daughter, about to embark for Siberia to join her radical lover, prompted a “but what happened next?” sequel.
“After Anatevka” will not be made into a musical anytime soon. The story of Hodel’s life after she leaves the shtetl is a grim one. Flashing back from her hardscrabble coming-of-age near a gulag-like Siberian salt mine, she remembers the warmth and love of her sisters and mother. Her father, Tevye, figures surprisingly obliquely. Beautiful Hodel recalls “a certain crinkling at the corners of his eyes, an unforgettable spark that would ignite whenever any one of them filled his heart.” But the complex, mournful, joyous man around whom “Dairyman” and “Fiddler” revolve is missing in action here.
Instead, Silber introduces unsurprising heroes and villains. The prison camp where Hodel finds her fiancé, Perchik, a young man of action and high intellect, houses a crew of alcohol-fueled characters worthy of “Hogan’s Heroes.” The labor camp overseer at first seems sympathetic to Hodel, only to reveal an abusive, venal nature.
Aleichem both celebrates human comedy and chronicles inhuman tragedy, while spinning colorful webs of language that bring alive the teeming world of the Eastern European shtetl. Set during the same period as its forebear, “After Anatevka” abounds in tsouris and darkness. At times the language has a tinny, impoverished ring to it, as when “something plagued Hodel’s mind — like sand within the soft folds of her brain.”
“The shadow of the Holocaust is long,” writes the shtetl historian Eva Hoffman, “and it extends backward as well as forward.” To read material based in this haunted, now-vanished context could mean fighting past the shades of history to tap into the heady, irrepressible, life-is-for-living tone of Aleichem, an opportunity that this sequel only occasionally offers.