If you are familiar with the name of Louisa May Alcott, you likely know her as the author of Little Women. You might also be familiar with the subsequent books about the March family–Good Wives, Jo’s Boys, Little Men–which are also based on Alcott’s life. You may not be aware, however, that Alcott wrote other children’s books, which eventually earned her the title in her lifetime of the “The Children’s Friend”. Nor may you be aware that Alcott’s first published book was a collection of fairy tales called Flower Fables.
Alcott first told her fanciful tales to Ellen, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and later wrote them down as a present. Feeling proud and excited, Alcott’s father brought his daughter’s tales to a local publisher. Advance copies of Alcott’s book came out in 1854, in time for her to give copies as Christmas gifts. One hundred and fifty years later, in 2004, the Orchard House published a commemorative edition to benefit preservation of the home where Alcott lived. This year, I picked up my very first copy while visiting the Orchard House.
I wish I could tell you that I loved Flower Fables, but for the most part I find it dated. By this, I don’t mean that Alcott described events which no longer hold relevance, portrayed ethnic groups or even genders in stereotyped ways, or applauded values that have gone out of style. Rather, I’m thinking instead of my husband’s reaction to Little Women. For the most part, besides finding Little Women very girlie with its references to balls, romance, and clothes, he thought it preachy and moralistic. While today’s readers might find that true to a certain extent, what saves Little Women is that it also has some of most memorable scenes and characters in children’s literature. The same can’t be said of Flower Fables, which means its didactic style is sure to bore today’s readers as much as or more than it did me.
My first impression of Flower Fables is it falls into the trap of some science fiction stories in considering that other beings are far superior in their care for each other and nature than humans. In one of my least favorite tales, Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land, Eva is transported into a beautiful and magical land where fairies diligently work to mend the broken petals and leaves of flowers and wings and legs of insects, all of which have been supposedly damaged by cruel human hands. The fairy band also ventured into the mortal world, where they “went among the poor and friendless, bringing pleasant dreams to the sick and old….” Should ever one of the creatures in fairy land fail to be perfect, others among them bring them back into “purity and peace” with “loving words and gentle teachings”.
My second impression of Flower Fables is that the task laid to those others is a darn difficult one. And herein is where I admit to semi-liking a few of the tales. Two which I particularly appreciated are The Frost King and Lily Bell and Thistledown. In the first story, Violet sets out to both love and fearlessly speak to the Frost King about his evil ways. He rejects her request and allows his frost spirits to bear her off to prison. Even when Violet turns her prison into a sunny and happy room, the Frost King scorns her kind offer of a golden mantle that will bring him peace and love. Day after day, Violet remains steadfast, unwilling to give up her cause of bringing warmth to the rest of the flowers back home. In the second story, Lily Bell is good while Thistledown is bad. When Thistledown seeks shelter from stormy weather, he finds no one will let him near. This temporarily causes him to repent. As is the true nature of the wayward, however, it isn’t long before he becomes bored and resumes his destructive ways. When this betrayal causes a rift between him and best friend Lily Bell, Thistledown begins to rethink his life. Real change in personality can’t happen overnight; I appreciate that Alcott is aware of this and so allows Thistledown to repeatedly fail in his goal to be good. Alcott’s more interesting tales remind me of Pilgrim’s Progress, in their awareness of the fallibility of man. While that classic also at times feels dated, I still enjoy revisiting it on occasion; Christian’s pilgrimage feels realistic and therefore inspiring, as do some of the stories in Flower Fables.
I’d be amiss if I neglected to also applaud the last story in Flower Fables. Being about a water-spirit, instead of about fairies or elves, Ripple is unique. Its message of keeping promises also felt like a fresh change from the endless admonishments to be good. Ripple comes across a mother who has lost her child to a storm. Longing to comfort her, she promises to find a way to rescue the boy. Little does she know the cost of keeping this promise. As with her awareness of the fallibility of mankind, Alcott also seems to understand how deeply one might have to sacrifice for love. Perhaps, in this truth, Alcott drew upon her own life’s experiences, for she spent the bulk of her life doing just this for her family.
Although I can’t recommend Flower Fables to a general audience, I do encourage avid fans of Alcott to read it at least once. Moreover, I now feel an inkling to reread Alcott’s lesser known classics: such as Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and Under the Lilac Tree.
What books beyond Little Women have you read by Alcott? What were your impressions?
My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.
How would you rate this book?