Is there a name for a genre of books where a secondary character in a beloved classic takes the starring role in their own story? If there is, sign me up to read them—when they’re as well-written and engaging as the four below.
I recently finished Marmee: A Novel of Little Women, by Sarah Miller (2022). The author did her research before writing this book, and based it on what she learned of Louisa May Alcott’s parents as well as on Little Women itself. The result is a beautifully written tale from Marmee’s point of view, covering the same time period as the original novel but in a diary format. I love Little Women, and I love the movies made from it, but I’ve sometimes been frustrated with the abundance of critical and cinematic attention paid to Jo as opposed to her (in my opinion) equally interesting sisters.
Now, I like Jo, and I empathize with her as a character, but I also love Meg, Beth, and yes, even Amy. I’ve always felt that these four sisters symbolized different aspects of coming-of-age womanhood—aspects I recognized in myself even as a young girl reading Little Women for the first time. In Marmee, we experience the same story from a mother’s point of view, which thankfully means that in this retelling, no one daughter gets top billing in the story; there is no favoritism from either Marmee herself or from author Sarah Miller. I really appreciated that.
Miller also shows us another side of Marmee (based heavily on Alcott’s own mother) that reflects her abolitionist ideals, her pursuit of justice, and her strong desire to help others less fortunate than herself. I appreciated also that Marmee wasn’t presented as the perfect mother or woman, but one with realistic character flaws and secrets that affect her relationships and explain different aspects of the original story.
After I finished Marmee, I realized that I had read several books lately in this “genre,” most of which I’d enjoyed very much. Three other “secondary character takes the starring role” books are:
Caroline: Little House, Revisited, also by Sarah Miller. I read this when it came out back in 2017, and I just loved it. The Little House books and Laura Ingalls Wilder are huge interests of mine, as is the whole topic of women’s domestic history (which is what I call that area of history dealing with everyday, average women rather than “famous” women in any given time period). Caroline Ingalls has always fascinated me because I admire her strength, her integrity, her adaptability, and the innumerable skills and talents she exhibited as a 19th-century pioneer wife and mother. This book isn’t for children; it deals with the nitty-gritty of what life was like then for women on the prairie, while following the story roughly of the same time period of Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book. One caveat: Miller realistically depicts every aspect of Caroline’s life, including her loving marriage to a good man. If that aspect of the Ingalls’ relationship is not something you are interested in reading about, then this book probably isn’t for you.
Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker (2017). I’ve read Jane Eyre several times, and I’ve always loved the character of Edward Rochester. But I know that some who love Jane have a hard time also loving Edward. This book is Sarah Shoemaker’s imagining of his backstory, from his childhood through the end of the original book. Whether you “like” the character of Rochester or not, this book offers a plausible and well-written explanation of how he got to be who he is. (As an aside, not long after I read Mr. Rochester, I also read Wide Sargasso Sea, which is Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel of Antoinette/Bertha’s backstory. This book is often spoken of as a postcolonial and feminist masterpiece of modern fiction, but—or perhaps because of this?—I just didn’t like it. I found it pretentious and rambling, with unlikable characters that didn’t hold my interest.)
Jacob T. Marley, by R. William Bennett (2011). I didn’t expect to like this book. Quite frankly, I expected it to be a mediocre capitalization on the tremendous popularity of A Christmas Carol. I’m so pleased to say that I was wrong. After reading this book back in 2020, I wrote: “I loved this! I teared up in several places. What a great companion to A Christmas Carol. Plus, the paperback copy I read is beautiful, inside and out.” Many reviewers note that Bennett captures the spirit and language of the original tale, and I have to agree. In my own library, I shelved this book right next to A Christmas Carol, where I think it rightfully belongs.
I doubt that “Secondary Characters, Center Stage” is a literary genre (if there is a genre for this category, I don’t know what it is). If you had asked me several years ago about writers creating books based on other people’s famous secondary characters, I’d have been skeptical, to say the least. And I’d have missed out on four really enjoyable books based on books that I’ve loved in the past and have learned to appreciate all over again, from a secondary character’s point of view.
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