This is the wonderful story of Rose Campbell, whom we first meet as a sickly and despondent 13-year-old orphan. She is grieving for her recently dead parents, and she tends to get the vapors and other Victorian women's ailments. Nevertheless, this shy, frail and delicate creature is sent to live on the "Aunt Hill" to be raised by six very opinionated aunts.
And that's not all. She is also surrounded by seven male cousins, as boisterous and full of life as they come. Rose's initial reaction is to wish herself dead. Barely able to lift her head, she is frightened and overwhelmed by the presence of her mischievous clan. But deep inside, she is secretly envious. The boys get to climb trees and run and play, while Rose, as all young women in her day, is confined to the parlor, constricted by tight corsets and impossible petticoats.
Along comes Uncle Mac, the doctor uncle whose view of how to raise girls clashes with his day and time--and all six of his sisters, the formidable aunts. In the character of Doctor Mac, Louisa May Alcott was able to tout her own family's avant garde views on women's health, almost a century ahead of its time. The doctor forbids Rose to wear the constricting corsets, to the horror of all her aunts and the girl herself. He wonders how she can feel healthy when she cannot draw a decent breath? He encourages her to play outside with her cousins, to get fresh air and exercise. He demands that she eat good, hearty meals instead of womanly morsels. And under his tutelage, and with the friendship of her wonderful cousins, Rose starts to bloom. She turns from a shy, sickly little mouse into a strong, outgoing young woman.
I loved this book as a child; I love it now. It has the perfect message for any girl of any age: Be yourself, take care of yourself, and nothing and nobody can stop you. In my view, "Eight Cousins" is Alcott's true masterpiece.