In Leigh Dragoon’s inventive take on Little Women, the March girls are all witches — and the Laurences, freshly moved in next door, are witchfinders.
Little Witches: Magic in Concord
Leigh Dragoon (writer); Louisa May Alcott (based on characters created by); Leigh Dragoon (art); Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (Letters)
August 19, 2020
The dilemma of the witchfinders next door forces the March family to make sacrifices (like wilting their eternally-producing garden in the middle of winter) and to confront their anxieties about being discovered. But it turns out that the Laurence clan isn’t in town to hunt the Marches, but to investigate a series of disappearances that seem to be connected to the presence of evil, jealousy-based magic.
All four of the girls struggle with the absence of Mr. March, a medical chaplain with a healing touch currently serving in what appears to be the Civil War, to different degrees. Meg’s inability to learn a weaving spell haunts her. Amy is the unwilling apprentice to Aunt March and is caught between her parent’s belief system and Aunt March’s.
Taking center stage, naturally, is Jo and her poignant desire to be useful in the world and the world’s repeated refusals to allow her to be useful. Specifically, Aunt March refuses to train her as an apprentice, and her desire to help her father in the war is stymied due to her lack of experience. Also important is her burgeoning friendship with Laurie, which is generally playful and lighthearted. Then Laurie and Jo’s investigation of their neighbor’s missing cow results in all four of the March sisters as well as Laurie meeting with danger from which they may not emerge alive.
Little Witches is a complicated little book that teenagers will adore, but made me miss the original book’s simplicity on occasion. Adding witchcraft – a dangerous profession in a post-Witch Trials Massachusetts – into the pot is an interesting choice. The writing is more stellar than the artwork in Little Witches. Dragoon takes themes and scenes familiar to fans of the book and twists and transposes them, giving them a new magical light, but the art is less notable, even a little dull, though appealing to childish eyes with its soft watercolors. It’s notable that Dragoon does not use Alcott’s narrative voice in the piece and chooses dialogue that doesn’t entirely fit with Alcott’s. The focus on sisterhood within the March clan is paramount, but there’s less focus on the girls learning heavy moral lessons, and even less of one of them becoming an exemplary wife. Still, the changes in character and motivation Dragoon makes works for the characters.
The way the book transposes real-life issues into the magical mix is nicely thought out. There is justice for Amy’s abusive experience with her teacher, who then becomes a major part of the story. The Laurences are Black, and Mr. Laurence was a runaway slave who used magic to defend himself and others from recapture – and it develops that in-universe Black magic users are persecuted for their powers. Also well-done are the incidents from Alcott’s original which are reworked for the book, from Amy burning Jo’s book (this one a journal, taken in revenge for her stealing one of Aunt March’s books) and Beth’s illness (a magical affliction this time).
And yet Dragoon barely brushes the surface in regard to the girls’ poverty, which is a major theme in Little Women. While they still perform acts of charity, they stay insular, and have magic’ed up resources that keep them from starving. Also absent is Jo’s love of creative writing, a huge part of her character.
Otherwise, all four of the girls are generally the same, from practical eldest child Meg to firebrand rebel Jo to self-effacing Beth. But while Amy’s still bratty she comes off as less spoiled and much more, well, like the roughly seven-year-old she should be. Mr. Laurance is wise and Mr. March tender and beleaguered, while Marmee keeps them all together. And Laurie is less a privileged schoolboy of yore than a more mischievous yet justice-seeking friend for the girls.
There are some flaws contained within the spell Dragoon weaves. There is, for instance, a lack of focus on Beth for over half the book, who barely has anything to do besides be Jo’s prop. When at last her protective premonition abilities become a huge part of the narrative, it feels a little late. The setting confuses as well – we’re clearly in some steampunk version of the Civil War judging from the way technology is portrayed, but the language of the characters makes no real sense for a historical setting. And artwise the characters do look a little rough. The sketchy style used reminded me of The Lumberjanes but wasn’t distinct enough visually to make a strong impression on me. Its gentle watercolors are soothing, though, and prettily enough done.
But the story is what compels here, and young readers of Little Witches: Magic in Concord will likely be enraptured by what they encounter when they open the volume. And in spite of my quibbles, adult readers, too, will likely enjoy it.