An Excavation of “Eight Cousins”

 We were not in the best of health, and it was not the best of times. It was because of the unreality of smoking cannabis,  and the discovery on a hot, sticky day of a musty old copy of Eight Cousins, by the nineteenth-century writer, Louisa May Alcott – an edition of her 1884 classic reissued in 1927.  We found it in Great-Aunt Andrea’s attic in a trunk that held unraveling Fair Isle sweaters and mismatched mittens. We made our delvings during the summer we house-sat for Great-Aunt Andrea, who was “going on tour,” as she put it ironically, to do “field work” in the rubble of war.  (It does not matter which war:  there are always wars on our benighted planet.)

Joan, my loquacious roommate, was delighted by our find of the treasured Alcott book.  Our newly-excavated 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition had a cute orange cover, adorned with an illustration of the graceful, seemingly grown-up heroine, Rose, who wears her long hair flowing down her back and dresses simply in a dark orange dress.  She perches on a green chair next to a round table covered with a matching green velvet cloth.  And above the table hover portraits of Rose’s seven male cousins.

Joan shrieked over the art work.  “How amusing!  But why would Andrea have this book?” 

We sat on the floor flicking the pages, waiting for the cannabis to wear off, which we had unwisely bought in an alley behind a suburban Starbucks “What is this stuff?” I asked tiredly after a couple of tokes. “It’s laced with something.”  And then I was unable to talk; I was in a very dark place. Eventually I fell asleep, while Joan sang old Beatles songs, and then she fell silent, too.

We awoke with a start, showered and changed into clean shorts and t-shirts, and went downstairs, chatting about Alcott.   Eight Cousins was not the kind of book one expected G.A. – as Great-Aunt Andrea preferred to be called-  to keep in the attic, even for sentimental reasons.  Her shelves were crammed with 19th-century travel narratives, botany books, anthropology tomes, diaries of authors and politicians, biographies of the Tudors (for light reading), and The Complete Works of Cicero.  We didn’t know quite how old G-A was – but still  young enough to read Eight Cousins in 1927, we thought.

And yet we could not imagine G-A getting lost in a volume of  Louisa May Alcott.  Even her conversation at breakfast, while sipping the bitter coffee that no one else would drink, was inveterately intellectual and dry: we had never heard her mention a book of fiction, nor the weather, nor the movies playing at the theaters.  That morning she’d asked us at breakfast if “young people” still read Margaret Mead.” I said no. I wondered, Was this Jeopardy? Should I say, “Who is Margaret Mead?”

“It is imperative that you read these feminist classics of anthropology,” she growled.  “Indeed, you will enjoy  Ms. Mead’s work.  There are similarities between anthropologists and war correspondents.  Your horoscope, Gertrude,” she went on, looking at me, “indicates that you will be a journalist for a time.”

Trying not to laugh and determined not to read Margaret Mead, Joan and I segued into the topic of Eight Cousins.  Had the book been hers?  G-A looked at us with surprise; then said indifferently that perhaps she had read it, she couldn’t remember; but that it might have belonged to her sister, Mildred, who became a schoolteacher and was more likely to enjoy such things.  

As so often, we wondered if G-A wouldn’t have been better off reading Wuthering Heights, John Updike, or Tama Janowitz, like other mortals.   My nerves tingled because she never used  contractions.

And we could not keep up with her talk of the war. She found it strange that we were not out protesting every day.  Joan and I were not, at that time, concerned with the latest war; we had just finished our strenuous junior year at X College, a women’s college that resembles Smith or Wellesley, except that it is “less user-friendly.”  Every spring, one quarter of the students collapsed with the vapors, commonly labeled in the modern style as Anorexia, Depression, or Borderline Personality.  Joan was anorexic, still pale and skinny from overwork; I was depressed, nearly silent even when not stoned, after  laboring over  a 25-page paper on autobiographical elements in Jane Bowles’s enigmatic fiction, which eluded me after page 10.  I tried to wax lyrical and kept repeating myself till I reached the end of page 24.  But the professor approved the paper, another unlikely educational hurdle I’d passed.  (Query:  would I have been happier at a less intense school? )

That night, G-A left for the war zone. “Try to get out of the house.  Go to the protests.,” she said

“And if I were you,” she went on, leaning out the window of the taxi, “I would try to find a more valuable edition of Eight Cousins than the Grosset and Dunlap.  This is the kind of book you sell rather than read.  Nobody reads Alcott.”

But we read her. Eight Cousins is a slight, charming novel about a vain, prim orphan, Rose, who, under the auspices of her guardian uncle, two great-aunts, three (or four?) aunts, seven male cousins, and her friend Phoebe, a maid, becomes a mensch. This is not one of Alcott’s best, but we love it because it is Alcott.

 The sequel, Rose in Bloom, is much more intersting, about Rose as an adult. 

N.B.  The 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition of Eight Cousins sells for $15 at Abebooks.

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