Little Witches: Magic in Concord by Leigh Dragoon--Graphic novel for tweens/Middle Grades Historical Fantasy
Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March are little witches living in Concord, Massachusetts with their mother. Father is far away healing people wounded in the Civil War. The girls push on with their household chores as Marmee wishes them to, while Aunt Josephine March complains about everything they do. When Mr. Laurence, a former enslaved man and witchfinder moves in next door, the girls are nervous but Jo soon befriends his grandson Laurie and old Mr. Laurence assures the Marches he's more interested in Confederate mages than hedge witches. When things, and later people, start disappearing in Concord, the Marches are to blame. With Marmee away, it's up to Meg to decide what to do. She thinks the problem is too big for the girls to solve on their own and they should wait for Mr. Laurence but when the situation becomes more fraught with difficulties, headstrong Jo takes the lead. Can they figure out what is going on and save the day on their own?
My 12-year-old niece just got this book and recognized it as an adaptation of Little Women. She knows I'm a Louisa May Alcott fangirl and Little Women is very near and dear to my heart. She was eager for me to read this book RIGHT NOW. At 12, I know she won't be interested in talking to me for much longer so I agreed to borrow the book and read it. I did not expect to like it, the original novel is an old friend I can quote from by heart and I've seen and disliked all the adaptations. To humor my niece I kept an open mind and I'm glad I did! The author is as much a devoted fan of the original novel and LMA as I am! I feel like she is a kindred spirit. I could easily tell how well she knew the novel AND the time period. I appreciated that a lot.
The first half of the book was more enjoyable for me. I really liked the nods to the original novel and the incorporation of Alcott family history. I smiled when I saw the apple tree, knowing, as the author does, the Alcotts had an apple orchard behind Orchard House, hence the name, as Bronson believed apples were the most perfect food. Having the Marches in this novel have a magically enhanced apple tree was a charming nod to the Alcott family. This half of the book includes a letter from Father, Jo writing and the introduction of the Laurences. Old Mr. Laurence is clearly based on Frederick Douglass who did indeed make quite a bit of money lecturing and writing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and My Bondage and My Freedom. I don't believe the Alcotts and Douglass knew each other but they did sort of run in the same antislavery and women's rights circles. Father March was forced to close his parlor school because he allowed in a Black student, just like Mr. Alcott. I also picked up on the fact this author has given Father the name Robin, which it very well COULD be because we know Jo's son is Rob after his grandfather! Mrs. March visits the Hummels but nothing about the baby being sick. I love the little nods that show the writer knows her stuff! Because I know the Alcotts and Transcendentalism, I understood the references in this book but I think for younger readers or those who haven't read the novel in some time, a bit of explanation is needed.
The witchcraft world building isn't as strong as I would like it. Why does Marmee only want the girls to learn hedgewitch magic like knitting, gardening, household chores and women's work? That is absolutely NOT what Abigail Alcott wanted for her children and I don't think Marmee does either. Being a Transcendentalist doesn't mean NOT changing the world! Mrs. Alcott was eager to vote and hoped she would be able to in her lifetime. Louisa was for reforms of all kinds.
In the world of this novel, Meg keeps knitting and for some reason knitting is magical and she isn't very good at it. What does what mean, exactly and why? Meg worries a lot. She stays home and doesn't work as a governess for the Kings. There's no John Brooke in sight to flirt with and she doesn't envy the girls in her old social circle. She's lost the essence of who she is in this translation.
Jo isn't so much of a writer but she's strong-willed, a leader and DETERMINED. Jo wants to be DOING something to help her family and in this case, that means witchcraft. Aunt March (ah the author missed a detail-she's Father's AUNT, not sister), is more likable here. She tells it like it is and sometimes she's a little harsh. She disapproves of what Marmee teaches the girls for good reason because surprise! Aunt March is like a magical epidemiologist trying to research and figure out how to save the world from things like the Black Plague. That's super awesome and totally badass of Aunt March! In this version of the story, Jo doesn't go read to Aunt March. The timeline is sped up and Amy becomes Aunt March's beneficiary very early in the story. The reason is, Jo is set in her habits and too old to train. Amy is young and still teachable.
Beth is super sweet and has an affinity for animals but she isn't all that shy. She says Mr. Laurence will let her play his piano but she doesn't ever go and play. Her illness comes from a surprising source having to do with the magical plot. I was surprised and not too thrilled. Yes we all cried when Beth was sick and later when Beth died but she kind of has to die because Lizzie Alcott died. Wouldn't it have made more sense for Amy to try to figure out what was wrong and try to cure Beth? Instead, there's a wild plot that seems disconnected from the rest of the story. It involves magic and the disappearances in Concord. Apparently Beth can not DO magic but she can repel it? This needs some clarification.
Amy is a little more likable here too. She's young and silly sometimes. I LOVE the inclusion of her malapropisms, it's my favorite part of her character in the novel and usually gets cut out of adaptations. She's not as bratty or as snooty. Mr. Davies was totally wrong to punish Amy and not the Snow girl. The other girl was bullying Amy first! OK so Amy wasn't supposed to be hiding pickled limes in her desk but she wasn't abusing her powers, she was a young girl trying to keep from getting into trouble at school. She didn't really know what was going to happen and what did happen was harmless. The OTHER girl should have been punished for being mean to Amy. Mr. Davies turns out to be a real surprise. I wasn't expecting him to be a fleshed out character. In trying to correct other people's behavior, he does the one thing he truly hates. I feel almost bad for him.
The startling magical conclusion needs a LOT more explanation. I don't understand what happened and why, except they all combined their talents to work together. The magical element needs more fleshing out-what, why, how? It kept me up late reading though.
Another casualty of this type of storytelling is Jo and Laurie's friendship. I don't get the closeness that's in the original and how Jo wants to be a boy, free of the restrictions placed on girls. While this avoids the problem of his proposal, that's part of the charm of the original novel. Who doesn't love Laurie?
Also included is a bonus short story. It's simple and cute. Like Beth, I love animals and don't regard common garden pests as bad. However, if I had to rely on a garden for food, I'm sure I would feel differently.
The illustrations in this graphic novel are dreadful. If it's set during the Civil War, why are the girls wearing turtleneck sweaters and long skirts? Where are the iconic wide skirts and sleeves? Bonnets? Gloves? Some of the men are shown wearing old-fashioned queues (ponytails or braids). That's not correct for the 1860s either. The shopkeeper and some of the people in the background look more accurate. The neutral color palette doesn't do anything for me. I did like seeing Orchard House even though the Alcotts didn't live there at the time the story takes place. I also liked the train station which is still there. None of the shops looked familiar. I know the town so well so I would have included the familiar buildings as they looked in the 1860s.
With a little more fleshing out, this novel could be truly a great adaptation for tween/young teen girls who just can't slog through all 600 pages of the original and prefer a little more excitement in their plots.