This story behind the great author is a beautifully wrought and in-depth portrait that sweeps forward from her birth and through the landscape of her life, but also fills in the picture with details of her parents’ lives as well.
In the context of what was going on historically, Louisa May Alcott’s success is even more awesome. She grew up in a time where women were not yet given the voice. Later in her adulthood, she would jump onto that cause, as well, struggling to help women obtain the vote.
Her childhood, bleak with poverty, with a father who was absent more often than not—with his own philosophical leanings toward Transcendentalism, a cause that consumed him, along with others—but her mother was very present, albeit struggling at times to feed and clothe the family. Louisa’s mother Abby lost several children in miscarriage and stillbirth, before she finally had all four girls.
What strikes me most about this wonderful biography is how Louisa finally created such a wonderful portrait of genteel poverty for her Little Women characters, polishing up her own story and embellishing it so that it would be more palatable—illuminating each family member, including her absent father, in a more favorable light.
But before we even got to Little Women, there were the years of struggle, with the compulsive writer churning out pulp fiction, adventure stories, poetry, and whatever she could sell…sometimes for just a few dollars. But she always sent money home from wherever she was—Boston, usually. She went back and forth between various boarding houses or garrets to the home in whatever village her mother was living. Her life was characterized by much instability, with more than thirty moves in her childhood alone.
This tale also includes scenes from the Civil War years, when Louisa worked as a nurse until she finally had to come home (after three years) due to exhaustion and illness.
Like many writers, Louisa used her own life experiences to fuel her work, and what she hadn’t experienced personally, she filled in with what she gleaned from reading.
There was so much wonderful information in Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (John MacRae Books) that sometimes I felt bogged down in the details of the early years, but as soon as she began to achieve success and had written Little Women, the story soared for me. I loved reading about how she wrote that book, how she finally came to write the others, and even about how she finally began to enjoy the fruits of her labor with trips to Europe.
Although I knew that she would die eventually, I felt sad when it happened. As if a great light had been extinguished, and to realize, too, that she died at a relatively young age (56).
I am still amazed, though, at how her books are still out there for all of us to enjoy. I loved them as a child and I’ll be rereading them again in the next few weeks.
Definitely five stars for this story of a major talent.