Orchard House: Ghosts, gossip, snow . . . magic! (guest post by Gabrielle Donnelly)

I am thrilled to welcome another guest post from author Gabrielle Donnelly (The Little Women Letters). She shares her recent visit to Orchard House which included a meet-and-greet, a short talk and book signing.

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My father once remarked, the day after a successful family party, that “laughter will cling to the rafters of a house.”  I’ve always found that this is true, and not only for laughter, but for emotions of all kinds.  I’ve walked into a penthouse office suite in Santa Monica with important furnishings and a sweeping view of the bay, and felt rising to greet me a tidal wave of tedium, frustration and hopelessness; and yet my local supermarket in Venice, a windowless space in an underground parking lot which is staffed with happy people who are always pleased to see me, feels filled to the brim with sunshine.  I’ve visited a Victorian mansion in St. Louis where the elegantly appointed master bedroom hissed marital discord, tension, disappointment; and stayed with my husband in a hotel room in Rome so small that we quite literally had to take turns to walk from the rickety old bed to the dark little bathroom, where we giggled and billed and cooed like honeymooners.

And then there is Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House Museum in Concord, Massachusetts.  Orchard House is a funny, friendly, rambling sort of house on the outskirts of town, two houses knocked into one in fact, with stairways in unexpected places and rooms leading to other rooms leading to more stairways.  It is the home of two families who famously exuded warmth – the real life Alcotts and the fictional Marches – and I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that both sets of ghosts live on there still, and most happily and energetically so.

I have visited Orchard House twice – once many years ago, and once again, this last month.  In between visits, I’ve written a novel, The Little Women Letters, set partly in the present and partly in the world of the Marches.  While I was writing, I spent a lot of time in my imagination in Orchard House – sitting with Jo and her pet rat and her pile of apples up in the garret; receiving groceries with Hannah at the back door in the kitchen; enjoying the fun of a “theatrical” in the dining room, complete with rolling melodrama, a beautiful heroine (that would be Amy) and, of course, the much-prized russet boots that had once belonged to a real actress.  To say that my subsequent visit to the house lived up to my expectations, is akin to describing the Taj Mahal as a cottage in the country.

In an earlier post (A Meet And Greet Full Of Pleasant Surprises, on October 28) Susan has described the evening there that all of us present described as “magical,” where she and I and a bunch of other Louisa May Alcott fans sat in the Alcotts’ dining room in a gathering hosted by the magnificent Lis Adams, Orchard House’s Director of Education, and gossiped shamelessly about both the Alcotts and the Marches, while the rain turned to snow outside and the ghosts of the Marches wandered in and out, ever-busy Jo “flying” around with broom in hand and story in mind, Father strolling through with his head in a book, oblivious to household crises (do we want to canonize him or shake him? – we still can’t decide), Beth smiling quietly from the corner.

These were not frightening ghosts: there are no bad people in Little Women.  There are challenging circumstances: war and poverty, sickness and death, all must be faced and addressed, and, people being people, all have their personal demons – Meg’s vanity, Jo’s hot temper – to acknowledge and conquer.  But the people themselves are all fundamentally good.  And while Susan and I and the Orchard House people sat in that warm and friendly dining room, safe from the weather outside, we all knew without a doubt that the laughter not only from the Alcotts and the Marches, but from their friends the Emersons and the Hawthornes and Thoreau and the Laurences and Aunt March and Sallie Moffat, not to mention the hundreds and thousands of visitors that the house has welcomed since the Alcotts’ time, did not content itself with clinging to the rafters.  It reverberated through the entire building.

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A reminder that Orchard House is celebrating their centennial culminating with Memorial Day weekend in 2012. Gabrielle told me that the Colonial Inn off Concord center is nearly booked for that weekend. So if you want to participate in the festivities, you’ll want to make your reservations now.


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