Eight Cousins is a novel by the much beloved author Louisa May Alcott. It tells a story about how a rich orphan girl named Rose grows into a healthy, intelligent and loving young lady with the help of her new guardian Dr. Alec, and her interactions with her six aunts, seven boy cousins, the housemaid Phebe, and various other people.

The novel is written as a number of mostly isolated short stories of various small incidents happened during Rose's life with Dr. Alec that portrays the characters of various people in the book, a style similar to Little Men and the first part of Little Women by the same author. The other kind of novels by the author, such as the second part of Little Women and Jo's Boys, focus more on story-telling, for being sequels they do not have as many new people to portray. Judge by yourself which style you prefer; personally both styles are okay to me, although I like the latter style better, while young children may prefer the short-stories style.

Now I'll introduce the people. Spoiler warnings apply as usual.

Let's start the introduction of the Campbell family from the eldest. There are two great aunts, Aunt Plenty and Aunt Peace. Aunt Plenty is a stout and capable old woman, the head of the family and a model housewife, with sensible, moderate but sometimes old-fashioned ideas about things. Aunt Peace is a gentle, quiet and lovely old maid, who never married after the tragic death of her wannabe husband just before wedding, but she bore it bravely and has become a confidante for the youths.

The four younger aunts are Aunt Jessie, Aunt Jane, Aunt Clara and Aunt Myra. Aunt Jessie is regarded as a model mother by the author. She has four boys, the oldest being Archie, then the "brats" Will and Geordie, and finally 4-year-old Jamie. Like Mrs. Jo in Little Men, she treats her boys with moderate love without spoiling them, and she makes rules that are enforced strictly but readily adjusted when they are found to be ineffective. She offers much assistance for Dr. Alec on bring up Rose, and quickly becomes Rose's favorite aunt. Aunt Jane is a serious and strict mother of her sons, "bookworm" Mac and "dandy" Steve. Her seriousness and insistence on more studying than Dr. Alec deems necessary make Rose fear her at first, although later Rose feels easier, for Aunt Jane has been very grateful for the help Rose offered Mac during his eye troubles. Aunt Clara is a fashionable lady with a single boy, "Prince" Charlie. She indulges her boy, and insists on making Rose appear "fashionable" by wearing corsets and fussy dresses, which greatly irritated Dr. Alec, who finds such fashions inconvenient and bad for health, and once successfully convinced her by giving Rose a winter suit that is both warm and healthy, and happens to be the newest fashion too. Aunt Myra is a widow who is terribly pessimistic, finds the world "a dying world", and believes in the early death of everyone from herself to Rose. She had a daughter named Caroline once, but her attempts of bringing up the child with medicine proved to be a failure by the child's early death. Before Dr. Alec arrived, her pessimistic notions had done Rose much harm, but the doctor arrives in time to correct it, and in the end Rose herself is able to improve her a little. There are four uncles: Uncle Jem, Uncle Mac, Uncle Stephen, and the beloved Uncle Alec, the first three being the husbands of Aunt Jessie, Aunt Jane and Aunt Clara respectively, and Uncle Alec (or Dr. Alec) is a bachelor. Since the Campbells is a nautical family, the uncles spend most of their time on the sea, even Uncle Alec who plans to take Rose with him in his next voyage, so the first three uncles play a rather small part in the story.

Now we come to the boy cousins. Archie is a responsible boy about 16 years in age, the chief of the "clan" as the boy cousins call themselves. Charlie the "Prince" is a lively boy, though much indulgement by his mother makes him rather lacking in self-control. He often says things that hurt Rose without realizing it, and tends to go wrong in his attempts to be fashionable, even getting into a quarrel with Archie for that. He loves Rose the most, though, and after Rose resolves the quarrel she agrees to be act as his sister, for being an only child is rather lonely. Mac is a regular bookworm, who abuses his eyes so much they becomes ill, and the oculist orders him to wear blue goggles and stay away from books for a long time, or he may become blind. Mac's sorrow can be easily imagined (at least I felt it when I was reading this part on the computer on 1AM after a long programming session starting from 7AM the day before, and I was so scared I stopped at once, for losing my eyesight is the second worst tregedy regarded by me, the worst being losing my intelligence, since I am also a bookworm), and he is so blue he might lose his will to live without Rose's help, I guess. Fortunately, Rose proves to be an excellent nurse for him, by patiently reading books to him and consoling him when he is feeling particularly sorrowful, while the books are beneficial to Rose herself too. Later when Rose has strained her leg, he offers his help in return, so there gradually grows a bond between them. Will and Geordie are ordinary pre-teen boys with their regular loveliness and faults, so I won't elaborate. Steve is a dandy in the good sense of the word, for he is very neat without being irksome. As for little Jamie, he is just eh... lovely, so is his little girlfriend "Pokey", with their innocent ways and childish pronunciation, something Alcott is really good at.

Another notable one in the novel is the housemaid Phebe, who is a girl about 15 years old from a poorhouse, with scanty education, but has a beautiful voice ("the phebe bird"), capable hands and a kind heart, which win her Rose's love almost instantly, and the boys' not much later. Dr. Alec undoubtedly helps in that, for he does not have aristocratic tastes that find it "improper" for rich people to associate with poor people; rather, when seeing the health and capability of her, he designates her as a model for Rose in these aspects, which strengthens their love to each other, even though Rose does feel a bit nettled at first. Rose is a girl who is eager to repay her gratitude and decidely resents the fact that she should have so much nice things and her Phebe none, so she tries various little tricks to help her, once by giving her an extra holiday and doing the duties for her, sacrificing her own fun, and another time by teaching her the neglected lessons, which bright Phebe gratefully receives, and which reminds Dr. Alec to send her to school with Rose.

Finally it is Rose herself. She had no mother, and after his father's death she was sent to the aunts. During that time, Rose was a sad and frail girl, somewhat like Mary in The Secret Garden but more good-natured. Before Dr. Alec comes, Her aunts tries their best to cheer her up, but without much success, for their ideas of bringing up children are often mistaken (Aunt Plenty believes in too much medication, Aunt Jane too severe, Aunt Clara too fashionable, Aunt Myra too pessimistic), and the disagreement between the aunts that make Rose feel like "a stray chicken with six hens all clucking over it at once", surely doesn't help matters any. When Dr. Alec comes as Rose's guardian, he asks the aunts to refrain from meddling for a year, which they assent reluctantly, fearing he would spoil her. Dr. Alec starts on Rose's health, by promptly ordering a stop to all medication and coffee, giving her healthy food and clothes, and encouraging her to have outdoor activities. On education, Alec does not believe in the then-popular way of cramming the children with knowledge "like Thanksgiving turkeys" commonly seen in boarding schools, but he prefers teaching the girl by letting her see real things when she goes to sea with him, and he finds it more important to have good reading skills, grammar and handwriting than other "higher branches", believing that polish is easily added if the foundations are strong. He also believes that the girl should be good at such housewifely skills as cooking and sewing, and with the teaching of two great aunts and the encouragement of Alec, Rose becomes much interested in that. As for vanity which is many girls' greatest temptation then, Alec does not like them, but he is careful not to upset the girl too much when trying to cure them, and he much succeeds in his roundabout way, such as Rose's letting go of her earrings as a bargain with Charlie to stop his smoking. Without much time, Rose becomes a cheerful girl who loves and trusts her uncle, her little virtues grow well with much good influence among the boy cousins, as shown above, and at last she becomes the "Monthly Rose" for every aunt wants her and she agrees to stay a month in each place. Honestly speaking, Rose is one of the most delightful characters I have ever read about, for she is so good and self-confident, her little faults keep her humanly instead of a angelic stereotype, her occasionally roused little temper give me a smile for she is usually rightfully so, and her notion "girls are made for the purpose of taking care of boys" is so funny even with the amount of truth in it, although it is not the first time such a notion is expressed in Alcott's books --- I believe Jo in Little Women thinks likewise.

In my opinion, this book much expresses Alcott's belief on how a child should be brought up, mostly by Dr. Alec's ways. Although I agree with her for the most part, time has changed sufficiently to make me feel ambivalent about several points she made. First the doctor insists a limited amount of studying and more outdoors activities for Rose. Maybe knowing the basics was enough for someone in the 1870s, especially for a woman who usually needed to do few professional things (I don't think being a housewife counts as a job requiring much professional skills), higher education was usually not much more than an ornament. Now things are quite different, at least here in China any job that is neither minimum-wage nor 300 hours a month requires a large amount of training, and much of the knowledge taught in universities, such as calculus, circuits, signal processing, English, programming, etc. are actually immensely useful in real life, and working women have been the norm rather than the exception for the past 50 years, so I guess even Dr. Alec has to do a bit of turkey-cramming if he wants her daughter to be able to have a job before 40. Anyway, the question of which is the better way of education, the cramming ways seen in Chinese middle and high schools, especially in rural areas, versus the relatively mild ways rumored to be used in their counterparts in the U.S., is still in hot dispute --- I have been much crammed in middle and high school, and I do feel I miss something, but if American education isn't decidedly poor in some aspects why is Bush pressured to do something about it? Who knows.

Another is Aunt Jessie's burning of her son's books that she deem harmful to them (Professor Bhaer did something similar in Little Women). Not really bad books either, just novels that tend to encourage incorrect notions of "success". Well, if I have children I will want them to read what I want them to read, but I'm not sure I'll succeed in that easily, for it is not that I have read no "inappropriate" books (likewise for watching movies) according to my current standards --- most children have a tendency to, and they may have too little patience to like many "good" books much --- but that I have outgrown and am tired of them, and the children may well go the opposite way if you force them to go one way. Also, being much influenced by the Slashdot crowd and RMS, I'm a supporter for free speech and similar things, and "save the children!" cries are decidedly irritating for me. Not that Aunt Jessie will surely do so if she lived now, but I can't help suspecting.

Well, so much for the rants. Anyway this is a good read for young children and adults that (like/about to have/already have) children, and possibly others such as myself. If you like it, be sure to read the sequel Rose in Bloom, which tells the story of Rose and Phebe growing into little women and looking for professions and husbands suiting them, a novel I like even better than this one.

This book is in Project Gutenberg, #2726.

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