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Book Review: Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen

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Imagine yourself repeatedly moving from place to place in and around the Boston, New England area in the years following 1832. Times were rugged. In winter, houses were cold except for drafty fireplaces. Medicine was just beginning to be understood. Disease was often thought best cured by bed rest, home remedies, wishful thinking, and prayer. Often, the ill were advised to travel to warmer climates where the air was fresh and clean compared to the frosty, smoky air inside homes, and the sooty air outside. 

Only the well-to-do could afford to move. Louisa May Alcott was thrust into a poverty stricken New England family that moved from place to place dozens of times in her lifetime — four different addresses by the age of eighteen months. The basic cause for the Alcott’s poverty was their father Bronson’s somewhat unrealistic belief in his own abilities.

Bronson considered himself a scholar, a philosopher, a transcendentalist, who would not waste his labors like any ordinary man. He would support his family by lecturing, authoring poetry, writing treatises, teaching about the nature of the human spirit and the realm of the material world.

His many attempts to start schools popularizing his beliefs were never successful. Oft advertised and talked about as ideal places for self-discovery through nature, parents withdrew their children from Bronson's tutelage when they discovered how frugal were food and living quarters where Bronson boarded their offspring. Mostly, students slept in his small home after his own children had crowded into tiny sleeping quarters.

In spite of attempts to offer the world his transcendent philosophical thought on paper, Bronson briefly remained successful at times as a lecturer, obscure most of the time as a writer. A critic would say:

While he talks he is great but goes out like a taper
If you shut him up closely with pen, ink, and paper.

Thus, he literally had no constant income and the Alcott’s truly lived a day to day subsistence.

 

Because Bronson was a personal friend of Emerson and at times kept company with other philosophers and writers like Thoreau and Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, these renowned people kept Bronson accepted in higher society circles even though the man was virtually penniless. Many times, Emerson simply paid Bronson’s debts.

 

Growing up in this wordy environment, Louisa Alcott kept her own diaries. Her verses often reflect her fragile family’s existence. From an early age, she would write small verses to her father and particularly her mother that often displayed her love along with her frustration with their family living condition.

I hope that soon, dear mother,You and I may be
In the quiet room my fancy, Has so often made for thee,  

When weary, Louisa would wander Boston’s streets. She knew its wharves, visited its markets, its stores, mingled with its crowds. She saw first hand the hardships of its peoples, along with the pleasantries of its upper classes. She deplored the idea of slavery and spoke out vehemently against it.

When John Brown’s feckless uprising failed and he was condemned to hang, Louisa wrote to her childhood friend, Alf Whitman, of “the wickedness of our country & the cowardice of the human race.” In spite of abolitionist’s loud outcries in both Concord and Boston, Brown’s sentence was carried out. Louisa's verses to the Liberator were printed. Here are two:

There  blossomed forth a grander flower in the wilderness of wrong,
Untouched by Slavery’s bitter frost, A soul devout and strong…

* * * * *

No monument of quarried stone, No eloquence of speech,
Can ‘grave the lessons on the land His Martyrdom will teach…

The Alcott’s home became a way station on one trek of the Underground Railroad. The Alcott’s outspoken attitude became a stimulus to help plant the explosive seed of abolitionism. Louisa Alcott’s fortitude and courage became a comfort to the wounded during the early years of the Civil War.


Working as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, Louisa exposed herself to all the unthinkable horrors of agonized dying men: old, young men, boys. Although she worked hard bandaging and dressing the wounded, Louisa May Alcott  tells of the terror she saw in the eyes of those soldiers for whom death was inevitable. Many she comforted until death took them away.

Beds to the front of them, Beds to the right of them,
Beds to the left of them, Nobody blundered.

* * * * *

With coffee not cannon plied, Each must be satisfied,
Whether they lived or died; All the men wondered.

To say the very least, Louisa worked diligently until she became too ill to continue.

Louisa May Alcott went on to write and sell her stories to newspapers and magazines both as stand-alone items, and also as a series . With the Civil War over, she continued her work on several manuscripts, particularly Little Women. The world is well aware of the myriad copies of this work which has become a national treasure for both men and women alike.

What actually possessed her to pen Little Women, Little Men and her other books I’ll leave to readers of Louisa May Alcott and their imaginations. This book is so well researched that I could not finish the final page without feeling I was there; I walked Louisa's streets in Boston; I shared the crowded, drafty living spaces in so many of her family’s homes; I looked directly at the bloody atrocities she witnessed during the Civil War.

Louisa May Alcott is a gem. Author Harriet Reisen’s narrative intermingles so easily with actual quoted words, phrases, poems, and expressions of Louisa that you forget this is a story about her; rather, it feels as if Louisa has taken charge and is now the author.

If you love well-written stories that will leave you feeling that, yes, there really are outstanding people on this earth who follow their dreams in spite of overwhelming odds, Louisa May Alcott is the book for you.

I would strongly recommend the book to all readers, particularly men, who like me, might feel this is a woman’s story. WRONG! This is a story about a courageous person who had the intelligence, the guts, and by all means, the talent to edge her way into what, at that time, was a world dominated by men. Her life and her stories I’ll leave for the ages.

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About Regis Schilken

  • Harriet Reisen

    Thanks for the long and thoughtful piece about Louisa, and so glad you liked my book – it affected you exactly as I had intended.

    Take a look at the website louisamayalcott.net for lots of info — especially about the American Masters film airing on PBS Dec 28th at 9 PM which I also wrote and produced: Directed/Produced by Nancy Porter…

    Best,
    Harriet

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Indeed Regis – another fine review, and worthy of the special recognition. Thanks again.

  • http://quiverfullfamily.com Jennifer Bogart

    Thanks for the excellent review Regis. Jack and Jill is my six-year-old’s favourite all time novel, though we love many of Alcott’s works.

  • Ray Bearden

    I just finished readin Mrs. Reisen’s book and I enjoyed it very much. I also read the various classic books of Louisa May Alcott at an early age and know them well. Therefore I was startled to discover that on page 238 of the hard-bound text Reisen, in discussing the March family describes Jo as the wife of Professor Bhaer and “the mother of two, like Louisa’s sister Anna. Jo’s children are girl and boy twins, Daisy and Demi…” This is an error. In the book Meg, not Jo, is the mother of the twins. Jo does have a proprietary interest in all the children, even especially her own kin. In fact, the parallel which Reisen makes between Anna and Meg fails here because of this error. I would assume that others have discovered this error as well.