Under the Lilacs, Louisa May Alcott
When I was 8 years old or so, my mother bought me a box set of Louisa May Alcott's books. It included the Little Women trilogy, Eight Cousins, and Jack and Jill. It was years before I discovered the sequel to Eight Cousins, A Rose in Bloom, or my favorite of Alcott's novels, An Old-Fashioned Girl. It was also years before I discovered that the Nelson Doubleday editions in my set had been bowdlerized. Cutting out all the temperance moralizing in Little Women, for example, makes for a much shorter book.
Along with the Little House books, I read Alcott's books over and over, and I still re-read them from time to time. Lately I've also been exploring her dark side, with her "sensation" novels like A Long Fatal Love Chase. But until now I had never read Under the Lilacs, though it was included in my box set. I can't remember at this point if I tried it and didn't like it, or I just never got around to reading it.
Under the Lilacs was published in 1877, between A Rose in Bloom and Jack and Jill. It opens with two little girls, Bab and Betty, arranging a tea party for their dolls (which may be one reason why I never got too far into the book). The sisters, Bab the sharp and sometimes naughty one, and Betty the simpler and sweeter one, are types that appear in Alcott's other books: Jo and Beth in Little Women, Daisy and Nan in Little Men, Molly and Merry in Jack and Jill. Alcott actually seems to prefer the Jo type, or at least she makes those characters more interesting.
The tea party is interrupted first with the arrival of a standard white poodle, and then a young boy, Ben. Ben and his dog Sancho were once part of a circus act with his father, who went west on business some time ago and has never returned. Ben and Sancho, having fled the circus, are on the road, but thieves have taken all their possessions and they are hungry and weary. The girls take the two home to their mother, Mrs. Moss, who immediately takes Ben in, feeding and clothing him before arranging a job with the local squire. Used to the excitement of life on the road, Ben, like the boys who come to Jo's school in Little Men, finds it hard to settle down to humdrum work.
The widowed Mrs. Moss is the caretaker of a large house in the village that has stood empty for years. The sudden arrival of its owners, Miss Celia and her brother Thornton, becomes quite an occasion. Miss Celia offers Ben a more congenial job that includes helping to care for her brother "Thorny," recovering from an illness that has left him weak and fretful (much like Mac in Eight Cousins). Thorny finds amusement and occupation in teaching Ben, who has never attended school, while at the same time Ben helps him to a more active and healthy life. Like Phebe in Eight Cousins, Ben becomes part of the family, both in the big house and in the village.
I gave my niece a copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl a few years ago, which my sister thought was too preachy. It can't compare with Under the Lilacs, which like Jack and Jill is an improving story with strong moral lessons. I don't think this is Alcott's best or most interesting book, but it is a very typical one, with echos of her other books, and I am glad to have finally read it.
A correction: I got one of the plot elements wrong. Ben doesn't meet the sisters at their tea party, but a couple of days later, when ther mother takes them into the estate's old coach-house. There they discover him camping out with Sancho, and Mrs. Moss shows her Jo-like motherly heart in deciding on the spot to take him home.