Christmas, 1861. The March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and their mother Marmee prepare for Christmas without presents and without their father, a Union army chaplain away at war. Learning to appreciate the smaller things in life, the sisters strike up a friendship with their charming new neighbour Laurie and his tutor John Brooke. After the holiday, Meg and Jo return to work in order to provide for the family.
As Marmee waits by her husband's sickbed in the army hospital, the March sisters must learn to cope without their parents. Meg is shocked and embarrassed to hear rumours circulating in society that Marmee is trying to marry her off to Laurie, and after an incident at Amy's school, Jo must take charge whilst trying to balance her family responsibilities and her writing. Beth helps a poor German immigrant family suffering from scarlet fever, but her life is put in danger as she also falls ill.
A year has passed and the March family welcomes Meg's twins, but Marmee and Jo are anxious as Beth's health and spirits flag. Aunt Carrol arrives with the opportunity for Jo to accompany her daughter on a tour of Europe, but dismayed by Jo's wild spirit, chooses the more refined Amy as a companion. Devastated, Jo flees to New York to become a governess and pursue her writing career. There she meets the kind-hearted Professor Bhaer, who challenges her to write more honestly.