From Hillside to Thoreau to Irish Immigrants

I just finished the section in Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever about the 3-1/2 years the Alcott Family spent at Hillside (must make a point of touring Hillside, now known as the Wayside, next summer). Cheever spent a couple of pages on Thoreau and how Louisa felt about him and it made me want to read Walden again. I couldn’t imagine how I could fit in yet another book between reading this biography and Gone With the Wind (the most fun I’ve had since reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).

I lucked out! Librivox.org has Walden available free as a downloadable audio book so I can listen to it during my commute. I hadn’t read Walden since college and wasn’t sure what to expect. I did remember liking it back in school though I’m sure I didn’t fully understand it. Right away though the first chapter, “Economy,” captured me. Thoreau threw in so many gold nuggets that I couldn’t digest it all. I keep nodding my head, saying “yes!”, and laughing as he poked fun. I kept thinking of my son who tries to live a minimalist lifestyle. I understood like never before what Thoreau was talking about: how we must rise above our everyday mundane lives, throw off the shackles of materialism and think totally outside the box. I loved his commentary on success and the idea that there is more than one definition of “success.”

I loved getting into the mind of this man that Louisa so cherished. While sharp and candid, there was also a gentleness there. I had never thought of Thoreau as witty (and maybe he wasn’t trying to be) but I found myself laughing out loud several times with understanding of what he meant.

Since I was raised by a naturalist mother who studied botany at Wellesley College, introducing me to a love of animals (especially cats!) and teaching me how to observe and identify birds (one of my favorite hobbies), I totally identify with Thoreau’s connection with nature.

I’m pretty sure I would have had a schoolgirl crush on Henry David Thoreau too! I look forward to my daily commute, getting more and more inside his head.

Next, I started Chapter 4 of Cheever’s book and read an interesting paragraph about the Irish immigrants that Abba Alcott served in her role as one of the first social workers in a mission for the poor in Boston. It reminded me of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fantastic biography, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and my favorite part of that book, Book One on the Fitzgeralds. She writes at length about Irish immigrants emigrating to America to escape the potato famine, detailing their lives in the slums of the North End of Boston and how one family rose from such abject poverty and hopelessness. I found myself wanting to read that book again but it will have to wait for another time. Suddenly there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day to devote to reading!

I love how my interest in Louisa is branching out to include more in-depth study. I’m hungry now for more of the back story. I think this is part of the reason why Gone With the Wind is such a timely read right now, learning about the Southern perspective from the same time period.

Who knew life could be this much fun, just from picking up a book? :-)

Catching up on Susan Cheever’s new biography on Louisa

At 257 pages, I would have thought that my read of Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography would have been quick and easy. Not so, especially since I’ve adopted the habit of taking notes as I read! This reminds me of school. :-) But I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about the other books I’ve read since this last reading binge began in the spring, wishing I had taken notes. I keep thinking of passages and long to know what pages those passages were on. Now I’ll know.

Taking notes while reading a book changes the experience immensely. It makes me ponder sections, paragraphs, sentences, even phrases, and I get a lot more out of the book. Being a slow reader already, this compounds the problem greatly, but it’s worth it.

That being said, I have completed a mere 83 pages – let me catch you up on my thoughts so far. Then I plan to post more regularly as I read.

First, let me say that I am really enjoying this book. I have seen reviews on it saying that it is a beginner’s biography, and that’s a legitimate thought. But because I am studying this book, I am finding a lot more than I expected to find.

I remember scanning the preface at Barnes and Nobles (I couldn’t buy the book that day) and immediately being taken in. I think I am in the frame of mind to want to read a personal biography where the author deliberately puts herself into the story. The preface pretty much states that that is her intention and I accept that. I am becoming increasingly curious about the effect Louisa has on people and truly want to know how Susan Cheever was inspired by her, and why.

Because of her tricky relationship with her own father, John Cheever (a well known author), Cheever focuses a lot on Bronson. So far in all the biographies I’ve read, I have not found a more thoughtful, and fair, assessment of Bronson. He is immensely complex, with his share of sterling qualities and fatal flaws. So far I have not walked away detesting the man, but rather I understand him better. That doesn’t mean, however, that I would have wanted him for my father!

I have pages and pages of notes, too much to go through in this blog. But the fact that I have so many notes says to me that this is a far meatier book than 257 pages would tell you. Another fine example of how you can’t judge a book by its cover. :-)

I have just finished the Fruitlands experiment and am now into the Hillside era (my favorite era in Louisa’s life). I will share more as I plough through this book.

p.s. I can’t wait to get into Richard Francis’ book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia and find out more about the nefarious Charles Lane. That man has fascinated me since my childhood when I first learned about him in Joan Howard’s The Story of Louisa May Alcott. I plan on reading Louisa’s version of Fruitlands simultaneously, Transcendental Wild Oats.

We have a tie! Two winners of the DVD Giveaway

Thank you for the great entries for the DVD Giveaway of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Woman, directed by Nancy Porter, written by Harriet Reisen, and produced by both. While all the entries were worthy, there were two in particular that really stood out. I asked Harriet if perhaps 2 DVDs could be given away and her publisher made an exception for our community!

Drum roll please, the winners are . . .

Dr. Beth Nolan, for her post on her favorite character, Mr. Laurence:
“While I love them all, I am particularly fond of the character of Mr. Laurence, Laurie’s grandfather. One of my favorite scenes is when he sends the piano over to the March home for Beth to play. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Beth who plays piano herself, but the poignancy of that scene has always stayed with me. I wonder who Louisa was thinking of when she created the character of Mr. Laurence. Her own May relatives, who often supported the family (including giving them a piano at one time)? Or Mr. Emerson, perhaps, who was a supportive friend to the Alcotts through thick and thin? Perhaps Mr. Laurence was missing his own daughter when he gave the piano to Beth, just as Mr. Emerson grieved for his lost Ellen. Regardless, I see Mr. Laurence as a gentle and kindly man – a true gentleman – and he’s a character of which I am very fond!”

And Jillian, for her post on her favorite character, Jo:
Jo March of Little Women is achingly like myself. She yearns for independence, yearns for patience, yearns for the ability to write and know that her words are heard and worth reading – by someone. We two write in the night. We two busy our minds, ravenous for a something to conquer, and aware that this very urge to conquer creates a hard edge that is unlike the woman we are, deep inside. We feel apart from our siblings though they stand beside us. We yearn to run and stamp out a life anywhere else, yet to leave home is out of the question. Home, hearthside, is where life pulses. Family is in the bones of us. Right and wrong war daily with passion. Shall we shout and stamp or be quiet and kind? Which is the true spirit of us? It blurs, just as I blur with Jo. To see her struggle with patience, to see her manage it, has taught me to curb my own anxiety. She is a sister to my soul and so, accordingly, is Louisa May Alcott.

Congratulations to our winners! DVDs will be in the mail on Monday.

And a Happy Thanksgiving to you all! I am very thankful for this wonderful community – you all have made this blog so much fun and it’s added some wonderful things to my life. Thank you all!

An interview with author Kelly O’Connor McNees

One of my favorite new books about Louisa May Alcott is The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. This is not a standard biography but a flight of fancy – a historical novel based on a period in Louisa’s life where there is a notable gap in her journal writings and letters. Author Kelly O’Connor McNees took the opportunity to fabricate a plausible and wonderful story about a possible romance Louisa might have had in her early twenties – a romance that perhaps could have been one of the inspirations for her most endearing male character, Laurie from Little Women.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is Kelly’s debut book and has done very well having been selected for Oprah’s summer reading list. The book has sold so well that it will be issued in paperback in May of 2011 (take a sneak peak here).

Kelly was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is your first novel (before that you were an English teacher). How long had you nursed the dream of writing a novel and what was it about Louisa that inspired you to write this one?

I have wanted to write novels since before I had ever even read a novel. I always wanted to be a writer, since I was very young. I can remember distinctly leafing through books in the public library, when I was about 13, and wanting to call to all the other people around me who seemed so calm, reading the newspaper–”hey, do you guys know what’s in these books?” I just couldn’t believe how much wonderfully vibrant stories and people were in books. I loved Little Women but didn’t know much about Louisa until a few years ago, when I picked up a biography on her on a whim. I was just captivated by her. I couldn’t get enough and knew I would have to answer all the unanswerable questions by writing fiction about her.

You discovered Louisa by first reading Little Women, and later, Martha Saxton’s Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography. What was it about her life that so attracted you? (Have you ever had a chance to visit Orchard House?)

I have visited Orchard House, for the first time last spring. What a wonderful place! They need the support of Alcott fans, and American lit fans, and New England fans–that house takes a lot of work and expense to keep up, and the Alcott society is doing such important work keeping that legacy alive.

I was attracted to Louisa’s spirit and determination and pragmatism. I included a quote in the story that comes from Louisa’s own words: “I resolved to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.” That quote is the essence of Louisa. She was nobody’s fool, and she wasn’t going to wait for the world to come lay its riches at her doorstep. She was going to go out and get them. I love that about her.

In reading Lost Summer, you took some bold chances with the storyline considering the fact you were writing about a real person. What gave you the confidence and courage to take the story where it went?

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is a novel. Yes, it is about a real person, but the Louisa character in my story is the Louisa of my imagination–a fiction. Once I committed to the book as a piece of fiction (not a a biography or a revised history or anything else), I felt free to concentrate on the words and deeds of the characters that were authentic and logical within that fictional world.

Do you think Louisa would have liked your book?

I’m not sure. But I hope she would know that I wrote it from a place of deep admiration and a desire to tell a story about her as a real person, in all her complexity–not just as a quiet spinster writing mild tales for young girls. She was so much more than that, and I wanted people to know about it.

How has your life changed since you wrote Lost Summer? What projects are you working on currently?

My life has changed in that, for now at least, I am no longer teaching middle school. I am working on another historical novel and looking forward to seeing The Lost Summer in paperback in May 2011.

Are you aware of any other author that inspires the devotion that Louisa inspires?

I agree with you that LMA fans are ardent ones. I suppose Jane Austen has a pretty strong following. And maybe Charlotte Bronte. Lucy Maud Montgomery has quite a base in Ontario (we used to live there). But you’re right–Louisa seems to be in a class by herself!

Here’s a video I found where Kelly discusses her book in depth to a Google book group

Amy March lives in my house (sort of)

I had this interesting little revelation that Amy March lives in my house in the body of my son! How is that possible? Here’s how.

Jo/Louisa loved her sister Amy/May very much but resented her “good luck.” I always suspected that May created her own luck because of the way she treated people. My son is like that. He always seems to “stumble” upon “good luck” and there has been resentment from family members and friends. But I’m convinced it’s because he has a very wide circle of friends and he treats each one like gold. He is fiercely loyal, generous to a fault, keeps in touch constantly and loves a good conversation about as much as anything. And he because he treats his many friends so well, good fortune comes his way. He got a job with Americorps last year through a friend (I understand it’s hard to get into Americorps now). He finished his assignment at the end of September and after only a month of job hunting, got a terrific new job, again, through the help of a friend (actually several – 5 of his friends work for this company!). And just yesterday, an opportunity opened up for him to sublet an apartment from a good friend who has to move out, and the rent is cheap!

Sure, our son is having a good run of luck. But I firmly believe all these good things are coming his way as the fruit of his friendships. He is sincere in treating people well, and good fortune comes as a result.

That’s what I saw in Amy/May – she worked very hard to fine tune her gift for graciousness. She enjoyed being with people and cultivated many friendships that meant a lot to her, and as a result, good things came her way. She easily trusted because she was not damaged (and that was her good fortune, being born after the worst of the trouble in her family had passed). Louisa, unfortunately, did not trust so easily because of her personality, and because she was damaged by her circumstances.

It’s easy to resent it when good luck seems to follow certain people and not others. But for the most part, just like with my son, the good luck wasn’t always  just random; in many cases it was earned. Just my take. :-)

Richard Francis unveils his new book on Fruitlands at the Concord Bookshop

Yet another new book on the Alcotts has been released, this one written by British scholar and professor Richard Francis. Entitled Fruitlands The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia, this book is destined to be the definitive work on the failed Fruitlands experiment conducted by Bronson Alcott (with wife and daughters including young Louisa), Charles Lane and several others. You can read a summary of the book here.

The research on this book is thorough and exhaustive and it was so stimulating to attend a lecture on the Alcotts that was not geared towards beginners! Francis is charming and witty, and very passionate about his subject. The main thing he did for me was answer the question that has plagued me about Fruitlands: why is so much ink spent on a community that failed miserably after only 6 months? Francis answers that question in his book, and hinted at it during his fascinating lecture.

Francis has written several other fiction and non-fiction works including Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands and Walden (a study of ideas in 1840s New England). He did his PhD on the social thinking of the New England Transcendentalists at Exeter University.

Right away I knew I was in a different world and a pretty intimidating one at that (as I am no academic)! This book will not be a quick read and rather than do a quick review, I will instead do a reading diary (to coin a phrase from our friend Jillian :-)) like I did on May Alcott Nieriker’s memoir. Richard Francis’ lecture at the Concord Bookshop was full of fascinating information and I wrote 5 pages of notes as quickly as I could to capture all the great information he was giving. I felt like I was in school again and it felt great!

(p.s. I will also start a reading diary on Susan Cheever’s book rather than do a review – I’ve been taking notes on that one too.)

I only wish school had been this interesting when I was in school!

Here’s a slide show of pictures I took at the book signing. And of course, I got my book signed too. :-)

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DVD Giveaway Contest – Win by writing about your favorite Little Women character

As promised, and in honor of Louisa and Bronson’s impending birthdays (November 29),  I am giving away a free DVD of the acclaimed documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women thanks to the generosity of Nancy  Porter and Harriet Reisen.

I’ve seen this documentary a few times and it is just wonderful seeing Louisa brought to life this way. All dialogue is taken from primary sources and much of it is filmed at Orchard House. You can see scenes from the film, interviews, and outtakes.

How to win? Write a short paragraph about your favorite character in Little Women – state who the character is and why that character is your favorite. If apropos, mention how this character may have impacted your life. Best entry wins!

Deadline for submission is Tuesday, November 23; hopefully the winner can receive her DVD in time for Louisa and Bronson’s birthdays.

And we’re off!