A Meet and Greet full of pleasant surprises

I went to Concord yesterday afternoon full of anticipation at meeting an email friend in person. I’ve met many such email friends and it’s always a thrill. Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters has become such a friend through stories exchanged about our favorite felines, and our favorite author.

Little did I know how many other wonderful women I would meet later at Gabrielle’s presentation and book signing at Orchard House:

Meet the staff of Orchard House! back row L to R: Pat Zirpolo, Sigrid Bott, Gabrielle Donnelly, Polly Peterson, Lis Adams. Front row L to R: Iman Sakkaf, Nancy Italleran, Karen Goodno, Jennie Johnson.

All the attendees of Gabrielle’s Meet and Greet were Orchard House staff members!


Talk about being able to indulge in my passion – this was like feasting on prime rib and chocolate mousse. :-) But I digress . . .

Tea at the Colonial Inn

The afternoon began with two new friends meeting over tea, coffee, lobster and crab bisque and a delicious rice dish at Concord’s historic Colonial Inn. Gabrielle is a delight and the conversation was lively and stimulating. It’s the first time I’ve been able to truly share my passion about Louisa with someone equally as passionate. It was wonderful.

Walking through the front door of Orchard House

It was dark by the time we made our way to Orchard House for Gabrielle’s presentation and I have to say it was a bit of a mystical experience to walk through the front door, just like so many of the Alcott family friends had done in years past.

In Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography, Susan Cheever wrote,

” . . . the Alcott family began to receive visitors. Their Monday night open houses featuring bowls of Bronson’s apples were often crowded with old friends like the Hawthornes and the Emersons.” (page 125)

And now I could experience such a visit and with people who have devoted much time and effort to make Orchard House the magical place that it is to visit.

Learning more about Gabrielle Donnelly
and The Little Women Letters

Seated around the dining room in chairs, we all listened intently as Gabrielle described her background: growing up in the 50s and 60s with four boisterous brothers, and taking refuge in Little Women. She described the book which she read again and again as her “comfort reading” and “consolation reading,” brimming with intelligence and warmth.

So when she learned of the opportunity to compete for the chance to write The Little Women Letters, she jumped at it.

Bringing Little Women to the 21st century

An editor at Simon and Schuster, Lydia Newhouse, came up with a way to bring the classic tale of the four March sisters into the current day: following the lives of three sisters who were influenced by letters from their great-great-grandmother, Jo March. Several writers competed for the opportunity to pen the new novel; Gabrielle, along with other writers, submitted a completed first chapter, and hers was chosen.

In a scant six months’ time, Gabrielle completed all her research and wrote the book. Immersing herself in Little Women and its sequels, Gabrielle took on the mind and heart of the March sisters, leaving behind a legacy of letters for the current family, the Atwaters, to dig through. Second sister Lulu, the most like Jo, derived great comfort and benefited from the wisdom of these letters.

Going beyond the end of the story

Gabrielle described how she imagined beyond the ending of the last book, Jo’s Boys, with Jo having a surprise daughter in her 40s. She read to us the first letter from Jo to Amy describing the experience:

My daughter has arrived in this world, and bless the infant, she is the reddest and the squallingest baby you ever did see! We both had a hard time of her birthing, but she came through like a trump, and when they laid her upon my breast she looked up at me with her little sharp gray eyes, and nodded with a decided air, as if to say, “There no! I don’t think we’ll be doing that again, Mamma, and I for one rejoice to know it.( page 1)

She imagined Jo as no longer being famous as a writer, and happy at the prospect. Because she was no longer famous, the Atwater sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) didn’t know anything about her except what they heard from their mother, Fee, an ardent feminist. In the end,  “Grandma Jo” would have a profound effect on Lulu, giving her needed direction in her life.

I posted a review of the book where you can find out more about this delightful story.

The work of writing The Little Women Letters

The Little Women Letters created a unique situation with regards to research. Gabrielle needed to immerse herself in Louisa May Alcott’s writings while also researching contemporary London life where the story is set.

She described how Louisa’s writings were full of detail on all things domestic so that she could write the March sister letters with an authentic voice. She even mentioned the necessity of gently but firmly tussling with her editor to keep  some of the typical slang of the period in the letters so that readers would come to believe Jo or Meg or Amy wrote them.

Although born and bred in London, Gabrielle knew that her many years of living in the United States would necessitate connecting with young Londoners to get a sense of life there now. Her many years of journalism coupled with great connections provided her with the knowledge she needed to create the Atwater family.

Meeting the Atwater family – a reading from The Little Women Letters

Gabrielle then read from pages 14-16 of the book, introducing the connection between Jo March and the Atwater family through an amusing and lively conversation between the sisters. We all applauded at the end of the reading.

The Orchard House staff and their vast knowledge

The evening concluded with a lively discussion about the Alcott family where I picked up some interesting bits of trivia:

  • Margaret Lothrop, daughter of Harriet Lothrop (aka Margaret Sidney, author of the Five Little Peppers series and owner of The Wayside) transcribed Lizzie Alcott’s journal from her days at The Wayside (known then as Hillside). Lizzie’s journal is said to be the most complete record of life at Hillside. The transcription has been typed up and is available in the Orchard House archives.
  • John Pratt, often imagined to be as “dull” as John Brooke in Little Women, actually enjoyed going to parties and socializing. Anna, because she was going deaf, did not like to go out but would eagerly listen to her husband’s descriptions of social events. Although a bookkeeper, John had an artistic side as he enjoyed acting (that’s how he and Anna met), so he was hardly dull like John Brooke.
  • Anna did not die of a broken heart after her sister Louisa and her father Bronson passed away within a couple days of each other. She developed some kind of medical condition over the years and died rather suddenly while doing housework.
  • There is an unpublished and apparently very moving letter by Anna describing Louisa’s last visit with Bronson.  This is the source of the short conversation between the two:

“Father, here is your Louy,” Alcott said gently. “What are you thinking of as you lie there so happily?” With his final feeble gestures, Bronson took Louisa’s hand and said, “I am going up. Come with me.”

Her answer, “Oh how I wish I could.” Her father kissed her. “Come soon,” he said. (pge. 252, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever)

A magical time comes to an end

Gabrielle ended the evening with a book signing, and before leaving, everyone posed for the picture above in the parlor. We left Orchard House as the first flakes of snow were falling, heralding an early winter. It only added to the magic.

I enjoyed immensely the time I spent with Gabrielle and look forward to growing our friendship. And being able to spend such quality time at Orchard House . . . ah yes, Nirvana. :-)

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Meet and greet with Gabrielle Donnelly at Orchard House tonight

Author Gabrielle Donnelly

I am very excited to be able to finally meet Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters. We have been corresponding since last summer and have spoken on the phone. She is doing a presentation at Orchard House tonight in the parlor on her book. I relish the opportunity to spend more than a few moments in Orchard House and really drink in the atmosphere. It’ll be just like it was years ago when the Alcotts entertained so many of their friends and engaged in games, fun and some high-minded conversation. The fact that it will be 7 pm and dark makes it even more enticing.

If  Gabrielle is as delightful in person as she is in her letters, this should be a wonderful evening! I’ll update tomorrow with pictures and the whole story.

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Louisa’s ode to her cat could be an ode to mine

I was flipping through Harriet Reisen’s fine book, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women and found this poem by Louisa (on page 112)  that she published in her family’s weekly newspaper, The Olive Leaf (the real-life version of The Pickwick Papers in Little Women). It so totally described how I feel about my favorite cat that I just had to share. Louisa once commented to her nemesis Charles Lane (from Fruitlands)  in her daily list of sins that she had an “inordinate love of cats.” Me too!

Jenny Jen, this is for you!

To Pat Paws

Oh my kitty Oh my darling
Purring softly on my knee
While your sleepy little eyes dear
Look so fondly up at me

Dearest of all earthly pussies
I will shrine you in my heart
Where no dogs can ever reach you
Oh my precious little guwart [?]

May the biggest fattest mouses
Be your never failing portion
Softest crumbs in heaps around you
And of drops a boundless ocean.

Do you have an “inordinate love of cats” too? :-)

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A last journey on the Sylvia Yule before the winter comes

I had the very rare opportunity yesterday of actually having 2 hours of free time lining up with beautifully warm weather in the middle of October! I jumped on it. :-) I grabbed the Sylvia Yule and went down to the local boat launch to take a final kayak trip before the cold weather settles in.

My husband keeps wishing we had a waterfront home. I think we have the best of both worlds – a home only a few minutes away from water – all the perks without  the work and hassle. Not a bad deal at all. :-) I launched the Sylvia Yule just as the sun was about to set.

We had just had a big rain storm so the water level was high and the current strong, making for a vigorous paddling workout. The colors at sunset were golden and lovely.

I loved how the water reflected the clouds and the sky. I only wish I had been able to capture the Great Blue Heron that I scared off a couple of times. Alas, an iPhone camera can’t do everything! :-)

Of course my head was full of Thoreau (as it always is now when I kayak). This time though I recalled Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute and imagined myself as a young Louisa with Mr. Thoreau in the Musketaquid, listening to music from his flute and the quasi-fairy tale stories he told about the natural world.

And how could I do a post about a kayak trip without quoting Moods? :-)

“All manner of sights and sounds greeted Sylvia, and she felt as if she were watching a Panorama painted in water colors by an artist who had breathed into his work the breath of life and given each figure power to play its part . . . never had she felt so truly her happiest self, for of all the costlier pleasures she had known not one had been so congenial as this, as she rippled farther and farther up the stream and seemed to float into a world whose airs brought only health and peace.

Anxious to reach a certain point, they rowed on into the twilight, growing stiller and stiller as the deepening hush seemed to hint that Nature was at her prayers. Slowly the Kelpie floated along the shadowy way, and as the shores grew dim, the river dark with leaning hemlocks or an overhanging cliff, Sylvia felt as if she were making the last voyage across that fathomless stream where a pale boatman plies and many go lamenting.”

The red, orange and golden leaves, while lovely to look at, sparked a little sadness at the thought of winter approaching. They remind me of the leaves I pressed into wax paper and gave to my mom in the last few months of her life, so she could still see the beauty of the season.

Still, winter makes the spring all that much sweeter. I will need to find a way to appreciate the snow and the storms and find beauty in them also.

This weekend, I will clean off the Sylvia Yule and put her in the basement until the spring. What a glorious way to end the season, filled with wonderful memories of great times drifting down river.

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Any of you know where I can find the following rare book?

I am trying to find a rare book called Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott (Critical Essays on American Literature), edited by Madeleine Stern. I’ve searched Amazon, Ebay, etc., nobody has it (almost got it from Amazon but the seller messed up and now no longer has it!) Any leads would be most helpful!  I can get the book out of the library but I really want to have it on hand for research purposes. Thanks for your help!

Children’s story suggests Louisa’s inspiration for her first poem (and inspires a little song)

Remember Louisa May Alcott’s first poem, written when she was 8?

To the First Robin

Welcome, welcome little stranger,
Fear no harm, and fear no danger,
We are glad to see you here,
For you sing, “Sweet Spring is near.”

Now the white snow melts away;
Now the flowers blossom gay;
Come dear bird and build your nest,
For we love our robin best.

In a delightful children’s picture book, Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute, authors Julie Dunlap and Marybeth Lorbiecki offer an intriguing suggestion as to what inspired Louisa to write her first poem, and discover “her own inner music – a wild melodious river of words that could carry her wherever she longed to be” (p. 29).

The setting

Dunlap and Lorbiecki’s charming story begins in Concord when the Alcotts lived at the Hosmer cottage (pre-Fruitlands). Right away they introduce the idea of Louisa’s exuberant spirit as the seven year-old girl  jumps from the ceiling beam of the Hosmer farm because of a dare from Cyrus Hosmer. The consequences included two sprained ankles and the writing of a long list of rules (given by her father) on the things “good” girls are supposed to do. Here it’s revealed how tedious Louisa finds the exercise of writing.

This would soon change.

Enter Mr. Thoreau

Because Louisa’s older sister Anna was being taught by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John at Concord Academy, the Alcott girls had the good fortune of accompanying Mr. Thoreau on nature field trips.

Magic time

The authors did a wonderful job of describing Mr. Thoreau’s oddities (“Some even said he combed his hair with a pine comb.”). He had a magical way of opening up the world of nature to the children, mixing a fairy tale mentality (describing a cob web as a fairy’s handkerchief) and the soothing sounds of his flute. It is the music he played on this flute that particularly captures Louisa’s heart. She noticed too that Henry jotted down quick notes in a notebook about what was seen along the way. Did he write such magical words in that notebook?

Life changing

Henry David Thoreau opened up a whole new world to Louisa, one that beautifully accommodated her boundless physical energy. Louisa discovered how freeing the outside world could be. She soon found the indoors with its chores and rules confining, especially during the long, cold winter. But while she could be outside, she reveled in all her experiences with Mr. Thoreau, from berry picking to excursions in his boat, the Musketaquid, to his stories about elves dancing on toadstools.

Unlocking the door

Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute does such a beautiful job of setting the stage for Louisa’s first experience of creative self-expression. Knowing personally the power of music, I could feel the sense of longing inside  brought to life by Mr. Thoreau’s flute. It was a key that unlocked the door to the rest of her life.

The birth of a poem

I found myself shedding a tear when, after the long cold winter, the first signs of spring awoke the writer in her which produced her first poem. It fueled my own longing to allow those creative urges inside of me to be expressed more fully.

An inspiration to children . . .

Even though Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute is a children’s picture book (and the pictures by Mary Azarian are beautiful), there is plenty of good and accurate biographical information in this story.

I would hope that any child would be inspired to unlock their door to creativity by reading this wonderful book.

And adults

I immediately went to Amazon and bought Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute – I wanted a keepsake to remind me not to suppress, but to develop and express, my artistic, musical and writing abilities.

A simple song

Here’s a little fruit from my reading, a very simple little melody for “To the First Robin.”  I made a rough recording of it on my iPod and I thought I’d share it with you.

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Abba Alcott’s contribution – behind every great woman stands a mother

You know how they say that behind every great man is a great woman? How about behind every great woman? In studying the life of Abba Alcott through the reading of Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer, there indeed was a great woman behind Louisa May Alcott. She was a mother whose vitality, intelligence, resourcefulness, support and example shaped one of the great authors of our time.

Excellent lineage

Abba, coming from May, Sewall and Quincy stocks, possessed great intelligence and a fighting spirit. She had a heart for others and their plights. These traits served her well through her difficult life.

Louisa of course, immortalized Abba as Marmee in Little Women and she was all those things. But Abba was also a pioneer in many ways, paving the way through her example of womanly autonomy and independence, all motivated by love.

Talent passed down

Louisa came by her writing talent honestly. Salyer describes Abba as a gifted wordsmith in her own right with a rich background of storytelling in her family:

“Abba was a born storyteller. She had once had aspirations to be a writer. Perhaps she should have been. It was her talent that Louisa inherited, her ingenuity, the vigor and dash of style which Abba could show at times but seldom did. It was certainly Abba’s suggestions and encouragement that helped make Louisa’s books. Alcott has told us that many of Louisa’s plots were suggested by her mother’s recital of incidents she recalled. Abba knew, too, many of Colonel May’s stories; and after her mother’s death Louisa sent Sam for her grandfather’s notebooks, from which she derived many more suggestions.” (page 75, Marmee, the Mother of Little Women).

Budding actress

Abba also had a flair for the dramatic and even nursed ideas of becoming an actress when she was a child (pg. 110). Anna and Louisa, of course, loved to stage plays and Abba fully supported them, knowing it was a good way to channel energy and imagination as well as stress. Undoubtedly, this proved to be an important coping mechanism through the difficult early years the family faced.

The May household was always filled with friends and neighbors eager to listen to Colonel May weave his stories. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

A mind for reform

A lesser known facet of Abba’s life is her pioneering work as a relief worker. With Bronson unable (or unwilling) to work for a living wage, she became one the first modern social workers out of necessity. Her family was often nearly as poor as the people she served. Salyer writes glowingly of  her work which showed a marked flair for organizing while caring for the poor from her heart. :

“For two years Abba continued her noble work. How noble it really was, only those could tell to whom she personally ministered. Her reports, vivid and vigorous as they are, cannot begin to show all she accomplished and all she learned. She came to know how true had been some of the portrayals of London slum life which she had before thought overdrawn and oversentimentalized. Louisa saw some of what to her mother had become familiar, and Abba later recalled scenes and incidents that Louisa used freely in her books, notably in Work[: A Story of Experience]” (pg. 148)

From mother to daughter

Louisa learned from her mother’s example and developed a passion for reform, seeking pragmatic rather than philosophical solutions. She worked for women’s suffrage both on a national stage and in her hometown of Concord (being one of the first women to vote). She would visit prisons and homes for orphans. She often signed her letters, “Yours for reform always.” And her writing, especially on the juvenile level, sought to expose young people to reformist ideas, especially about women (see post on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

These are just a few examples of the profound nature of Abba’s influence on Louisa.. She is the finest example of a mother who poured herself into her children and saw great results. Abba was very gifted and in today’s society could have enjoyed great success professionally. However, she used her gifts just as well, if not better, by pouring herself into her family.

Is there someone in your life who has stood behind you and made you great? “Great” has many definitions . . . think about it. :-)

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More from Alcott scholar Roberta Trites: Alcott and the emergence of the adolescent reform novel

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Alcott scholar Roberta Trites wrote a book published by the University of Iowa Press in 2007 called Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. I have one more short interview with Trites, conducted by WGLT host Charlie Schlenker where she talks about the beginnings of what she calls the adolescent reform novel:

If you want to hear the other interview with Trites on Louisa’s potboiler stories, go here to yesterday’s post.

Google Books has the following description about the book:
Trites argues that Twain and Alcott wrote on similar topics because they were so deeply affected by the Civil War, by cataclysmic emotional and financial losses in their families, by their cultural immersion in the tenets of Protestant philosophy, and by sexual tensions that may have stimulated their interest in writing for adolescents, Trites demonstrates how the authors participated in a cultural dynamic that marked the changing nature of adolescence in America, provoking a literary sentiment that continues to inform young adult literature. Both intuited that the transitory nature of adolescence makes it ripe for expression about human potential for change and reform.

I read a few pages on Amazon and put this book on my list, primarily because she has a chapter on something that’s fascinated me for quite some time – Louisa’s spiritual influences.

Oh, if only I could be two people so I could get through all the books I want to read! A nice problem. :-)

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Listen to an interview with Roberta Trites regarding Louisa’s “blood and thunder” tales

Recently the Milner Library at Illinois State University hosted a series of programs as part of the ALA’s “Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women”; they were one of many libraries around the country that received grant money from the NEH and the ALA. The series is based upon the best-selling biography of the same name by Harriet Reisen, and the film by Nancy Porter and Reisen.

On October 11, scholar Roberta Trites presented “”Behind Louisa’s Mask: Discovering the Real Louisa May Alcott.” Thanks to WGLT.org, we are privy to excerpts from an interview with Trites by host Charlie Schlenker. This 4 minute and 37 second interview is well worth the listen with some tantalizing tidbits.

Here is some biographical information on Roberta Trites from the official press release of the Milner Library and Illinois State University:
Trites teaches children’s and adolescent literature and is the author of Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Her research interests include Louisa May Alcott’s role in various social reform movements and her literary influence on literature for youth in the United States. Trites received her Ph.D. in English at Baylor University.

A highly successful author best known for her novel Little Women, Alcott secretly wrote sensational thrillers, lived at the center of the Transcendentalist and Abolitionist movements, campaigned for women’s rights and served as a Civil War army nurse.

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“Love your duty”

Continuing on with Marmee, the Mother of Little Women*by Sandford Meddick Salyer:

Louisa bound to duty

I think everyone can agree that Louisa May Alcott was a duty-bound woman.

Duty motivated and justified her need to write for money (molding her into the professional that she was known and respected for). Duty bound her to her parents and their care, giving her an easy excuse to avoid marriage (which was something she wanted to avoid anyway).

Duty bound her to her sisters, caring financially for Anna and her boys after John Pratt died by writing Little Men and giving all earnings to them, and helping Anna buy her own home. She paid for May’s trips to Europe enabling her to realize her dream as a serious artist.

Perks and costs

Duty is not always a bad thing – it supplied Louisa with purpose and contributed greatly to her drive for success.

But duty is demanding and she sometimes chaffed at it. Feelings of resentment often mixed in with the pleasure of providing for her family. It can be seen in her journal entries. She obsessed over her duty, and at times, became a prisoner of it.

Inevitably it caused her to sacrifice her personal artistic growth for the financially rewarding work that would support her family.

Still, there were perks – Louisa did enjoy indulging in her own comforts.

Duty’s beginnings

So where did this sense of duty come from? Not from far away . . .

” . . . I press thee to my heart, as Duty’s faithful child.”

On page 70 in Marmee, the Mother of Little Women, Salyer writes:  ” . . .’Love your duty and you will be happy.’  Abba’s text for herself . . . Now she found ways of making her girls, who after all were quite human children, love duty, too – even when eight years old. All their lives they loved it, and when Louisa was a woman, her father in his sonnet to her could give her no higher praise for the great sacrifices she had always made than to call her ‘Duty’s faithful child.’ “

Personal musings

I wish I could have better imparted Abba’s teaching about duty to my children (now grown) but I didn’t come to appreciate it myself until I was much older.

It’s is such an onerous word to so many (like obedience and submission). I find now that duty and obligation can be my friends, freeing me from the slavery of emotions which are fleeting. Duty moves me to do the right thing even if I don’t feel like doing it, and in the long run, it’s always the best decision.

While my husband and I did take advantage of our children’s desires to “help” when they were little, putting them to work right away (and now they help without balking), they don’t truly appreciate yet the value of duty.

How duty serves

Duty served Louisa well except on those occasions when she obsessed over it and took it too far. In my exposure to 19th century writings, duty was all important then. The pendulum has now swung way over to the other side. Yet in middle age, I am finding, like Louisa, that duty is good.

Duty signifies discipline (another word with an onerous connotation) and discipline is good, bringing order to your life. You can’t accomplish anything significant without it. Only the most disciplined athlete goes on to the Olympics. Dreamer that I am, discipline, duty and hard work have been hard fought for once I recognized their true value.

I’m hoping now, like Louisa, that I will be able to apply duty to those dreams closest to my heart, and move them out of the dream realm into reality.

What are your feelings about duty and obligation?

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