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"Eight Cousins" by Louisa May Alcott

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"Remember Glencoe...Remember Glencoe...Remember Glencoe" kept rolling around in my mind when I began to read Eight Cousins and realized that it chronicled the lives of a group of Campbells. Why "Glencoe?" Many centuries ago, locked in a bitter feud, the McDonalds and the Campbells had been warring for decades--maybe even centuries. In an apparent attempt at reconciliation, the Campbells extended a friendly invitation to the McDonalds: "Come join us at Glencoe for a barbeque." The McDonalds, whether battle-weary, curious, or just eager for a free meal, accepted. Unfortunately, at this "barbeque," the only creatures butchered and burned were the McDonalds.

In the intervening centuries, the Campbells appear to have become much better hosts. The Campbells of Eight Cousins read Sir Walter Scott, sport highland dress, and welcome new arrivals with skirl of bagpipes. One clan member, Bonnie Charlie, nicknamed "Prince" by his cousins, relates to newly-arrived and newly-orphaned cousin Rose, "So we hunted up the old stories, got a bagpipe, put on our plaids, and went in, heart and soul, for the glory of the Clan."

Eight Cousins is a series of vignettes that illustrate the affection of the cousins and their parents, aunts, and uncles for each other. The tales demonstrate that family members can disagree with, and even disappoint, each other yet still hold each other in the highest regard. Rather than a series of conflicts or problems to solve, the novel tells about the ways in which the family works things out before they become conflicts. In spite of its dearth of conflict or challenge, however, the novel does come through with many amusing and satisfying stories.

Author Louisa May Alcott's father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a noted Transcendentalist, and in Eight Cousins one can clearly perceive reformist thought and the dichotomy between intuition and conventional wisdom. Rose's new guardian, her uncle Alec Campbell, frequently squares off against a horde of aunts who would prefer that Rose confine herself to women's pursuits and dress accordingly. Alcott wages a virtual campaign against corsets and high-heeled shoes. With the former, she may have been successful. Alas, the current ascendance of Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin demonstrate that she probably failed with the latter.

A more noble campaign of Alcott's was to raise awareness of the need for young women to train for a career. Uncle Alec encourages Rose to select a line of work and begin training for it, although he would be just as pleased with her selection of housekeeping as he would be with her selection of chemistry or medicine. Rose spends time dabbling in all three and even interesting her near-sighted cousin, Mac, in the scientific endeavors.

While Rose is enjoying the solicitous attentions of her new guardian, her seven male cousins contend with their mothers' insistence that reading novels (Sir Walter Scott included) is just as bad for young boys as smoking cigars, and both should be stopped post haste. Their mothers, well-meaning but perhaps deluded, want only the best for their sons but unfortunately do not quite know how to achieve it. Their delusion is complicated by the fact that Mac has severe problems with this vision; a condition that his mother is convinced was brought on by reading too much.

Uncle Alec's forward-thinking was not limited to career and fashion. He was also aware of the Placebo Effect. Realizing that Rose's aunts were not going to be satisfied with dropping the "tonics" that they were regularly feeding Rose, he took bread, balled it up into pills, and told the aunts that, in lieu of tonics, they could feed to Rose as many of these pills as they thought were necessary. Of course, the Placebo Effect was for the aunts' benefit as well as Rose's, for Uncle Alec had already let Rose in on the ruse. Thus, Rose and Alec embark upon a mission to transform the Aunts' thinking, mostly through good example. But, failing that, through whatever (harmless) means is necessary.

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