Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen

Louisa May Alcott cover

Louisa May Alcott:
The Woman Behind Little Women
by Harriet Reisen

Hardback: 384 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt
First Released: 2009

Book at Publisher Website

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Book Description from Publisher Website:
A vivid, energetic account of the life of Louisa May Alcott, whose work has delighted millions of readers.

Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott’s life: the effect of her father’s self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family’s chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain. Stories and details culled from Alcott’s journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author’s classic rags-to-riches tale.

Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcott’s life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is in the end also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be. This revelatory portrait will present the popular author as she was and as she has never been seen before.

This biography of Louisa May Alcott was a well-written, enjoyable read. Harriet Reisen gave a chronological account of the Alcott's lives while relating how the national events of the time effected them and how they influenced history (through their Transcendental movement, abolition movement, etc.). She also worked in many quotes taken from letters and the personal journals kept by each member of the family.

The first 87 pages were mainly about Louisa's parents (Abby and Bronson) and their friends. If you're interested in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and other famous Transcendentalists, you'll probably enjoy this section more than I did. I was continually exasperated with her parents and, while I saw the value of showing the influences Louisa grew up with and how they affected her writing, I didn't like her parents and wanted to get on to focusing on Louisa.

From page 88 to 302, Harriet Reisen focused on Louisa and, to a lesser degree, her sisters. This section was lively and very fun to read though Louisa didn't have a very easy life. I liked how Harriet Reisen tied Louisa's experiences to her books: Louisa would often take real life events and work them into fictional accounts.

The rest of the book was references and notes about the quotes and information. There were no pictures. I would have at least enjoyed a picture of Louisa.

There was no bad language. Overall, I'd recommend this enjoyable biography to anyone who loves Louisa May Alcott's novels and wants to know more about her.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter Four (page 54)
[Note: Abby is Louisa's mother.]

The Alcotts were slipping out of genteel poverty and into the grueling variety. When Abby's cousin Hannah Robie came at Thanksgiving in 1841, she brought a bundle of old clothes for Abby to use to make dresses for her girls. Abby could rip them apart, turn the pieces inside out, and resew them so the unfaded side of the fabric showed.

During the visit, Abby took Hannah to see an abandoned woman with four children. To help them, the Alcotts had reduced their own meals to two a day. Now the "sweetness of self-denial" was about starvation, not plumcakes. The urgency of the situation became clear: Abby entrusted Hannah with the sale of her silver teapot and spoons. Hannah Robie returned to Boston carrying the tale of Abby's troubles all over town.

Louisa, observing the adults from a corner of the kitchen while stitching a hem or playing with her doll, missed very little. At almost nine, hunger told her how dire things were; as an adult, she would give more of her money to feed children than to any other cause. Her raw hands reminded her that she and Anna performed dirty chores their playmates never thought about; in Little Women, she would give the March family a servant, and she herself would have ten when she died.

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