Great or Nothing by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, and Jessica Spotswood


Great or Nothing by Joy McCullough, Caroline Tung Richmond, Tess Sharpe, and Jessica Spotswood. Delacorte Press, 2022. 9780593372593

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Historical fiction

What did you like about the book?  Four contemporary young adult authors take on one of our most beloved novels, setting the March sisters of Little Women in the context of the World War II American homefront.  The book takes place after the death of Beth; alternating chapters relate the stories of the three remaining sisters as they cope with their grief and the family’s wartime circumstances.  Their father has enlisted as a chaplain and is serving in the Pacific theater, once again leaving Marmee to manage the home and her daughters.  Marmee keeps herself busy with multiple volunteer projects.  Meg, now a high school English teacher, has stayed in Concord with Marmee.  She supervises the Junior Red Cross and does her best to help her neighbors, while keeping correspondence with John Brooke, who has joined the Army.  Meg is resentful of her sisters who have left town, and feels a disconnect with her mother as well.  

Jo, after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal, and fighting with Meg and Amy, has lost interest in writing and moved to East Hartford to work in an airplane factory. She lives in a boarding house with several other young working women.  After a work accident leaves her temporarily housebound, she spends time with Charlie, the visiting sister of one of Jo’s housemates, and begins a journey of self-discovery that brings her peace of mind and the love she has been craving.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her family, Amy has contrived a way to join the Red Cross, despite being too young and underqualified, and has been assigned to London, serving coffee and doughnuts to American soldiers.  Like Jo, she has turned away from her creative outlet as a result of her grief.  Not long after she arrives, she is reunited with Laurie, who is now a pilot stationed in London.  He is wounded, and her hospital visits to him provide an opportunity for their relationship to blossom, and encourage her to rediscover her passion for art.

Beth’s voice is included as well, in free verse poems that come between each chapter.  The poems are slightly eerie, as they are written from the perspective of the afterlife, but they beautifully express Beth’s range of feelings toward her sisters and their extended family, as well as her own emotions and frustrations while living.

Great or Nothing puts an interesting spin on this time-honored tale.  Changing the time period, slightly shifting the timeline of events, and focusing on the post-Beth era enables the authors to tell each of the girls’ separate stories without slanting the whole story in favor of Jo.  Their detachment from each other allows them to build relationships with other women, which gives them insight into the power and value of sisterhood, and ultimately brings the family back together.  Quintessential Little Women episodes and secondary characters are included, providing respectful nods to the original, such as Amy’s fall through the ice, and the subsequent burning of Jo’s manuscript.  The World War II setting incorporates a level of accurate detail, with general pop culture references to fashion and music of the day.  The story is set in 1942 and 1943, which puts Pearl Harbor and the London Blitz in the recent past for the characters, while historical events such as the Cocoanut Grove fire and the Battle of Guadalcanal feature prominently.  Issues surrounding women’s rights and racism, though mildly addressed, and the revelation that Jo is gay, bring a 21st century sensibility to this 19th century classic set in the 20th century.

Anything you did not like about the book?  I do think it has a niche audience – it would be hard for readers who haven’t read Little Women to appreciate.  

To whom would you recommend this book? Alcott aficionados will appreciate this newest entry into the Little Women remix collection.  

Who should buy this book? Public, middle and high school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Fiction

Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  No

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts

Date of review: July 2, 2022

This entry was posted in *Book Review, *Young Adult, Author, Caroline Tung Richmond, Historical fiction, Jessica Spotswood, Joy McCullough, Tess Sharpe, World War II and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.