It’s here! A folk art rendition of The Wayside (aka Hillside), home of the real-life little women

You may recall a series of posts on the progress of a folk art painting by Joyce Pyka of The Wayside. It is now complete and ready for the wall of your living room, writing room or bedroom.

Little Women (The Wayside) by Joyce Pykal

The prints for this painting are reasonably priced at $18.40 and measure 24 x 20; department stores like Walmart carry this size frame, also for a reasonable price.

This would make a wonderful Christmas present for someone, or yourself (hint hint, family, I would like this for Christmas! :-)).

You can order it here; you will see that Joyce has other delightful paintings for sale as well.

Thanks Joyce for sharing this with us, especially the progress reports.

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Yet another big announcement, and you can be a part of it!

I’ve been sitting on some pretty exciting news.

Along with the release of River of Grace this October, I also have another book in the works, commissioned by a different publisher. And this one is all about Louisa May Alcott! The book will be launched in January of 2016.

louisa cover

The publisher is ACTA; this book is part of a series known as the Literary Portals to Prayer. The idea is to feature passages from the classics and pair them with bible verses which will then stimulate prayer and meditation. The bible verses come from a modern translation of the bible known as The Message. Authors such as Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Anderson, Jane Austen and Elizabeth McGaskell will be featured, along with Louisa May Alcott.

The invitation to write this book came directly as a result of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. YOU made this possible and I am so grateful.

I am presently combing through Louisa May Alcott’s books and journals to find the perfect fifty passages to complete my volume in this series.

And this is where you come in.

Many of you know Louisa’s canon far better than I do. I am making inroads but we all know how prolific Louisa was!

I could really use your help!

I would eagerly welcome your suggestions on passages for use in the Louisa May Alcott Literary Portal to Prayer.

Please post your suggestion through your comment, or send me an email at with your passage(s).

If I use your passage, I will credit and thank you by name in the introduction I will write for the book!

The rules are simple:

  • The passage must contain between 73 and 275 words; poetry is definitely welcome and cannot exceed 30 lines.
  • The passage must contain some kind of spiritual theme, i.e. love of God, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, personal growth, a personal revelation, etc. The religious nature of the passage does not have to be overt; we want the passage to stimulate thought and inspire ponderance.
  • Cite the the name of the work and chapter number and name, and cut and paste the passage into your comment or email.
  • Deadline for submission is Monday, August 31. Post your passage(s) through your comment, or send me an email at with your passage(s).
  • First come, first serve. If duplicate passages are suggested, the first person who suggests it will be the owner of that passage.

I would particularly welcome passages from Louisa’s short stories from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Lulu’s Library, other compilations, or any stories published in St. Nicholas magazine. I don’t have the time to go through all of her short stories but should it be a specialty of yours, I would welcome your submissions.

Thinking about reading this weekend or over your vacation? Find some passages and send them along. I am eager to see your suggestions!

Please share this around with your friends on Facebook and Twitter:

All submissions are welcome. Cut and paste this into your Facebook page or click to tweet & share:

Know of a quote from #LouisaMayAlcott relating to spirituality? Help out @susanbailey and be part of a new book.

And thank you again for your support of this blog which has resulted in this opportunity.

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Louisa May Alcott as grief counselor (on the fifth anniversary of this blog)

My obsession with Louisa played out in a rather odd way. Never a big reader until a few years ago, I’d find myself reading a biographical account of Louisa’s life (rather than read her own words) every few years. This began after reading Martha Saxton’s biography. After the reading (usually done during the autumn months) I would make a pilgrimage to Orchard House. That would satisfy my urge for a year or two, and then I’d repeat the process.

No longer a casual interest

lost summer 190My review of the latest biography on Louisa May AlcottAfter my mother’s passing in 2010, that passion for Louisa was ramped up in a big way. My dear husband had given me copies of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen months before my mother died but it was impossible to read them while she was ill. A couple of weeks after she was gone, I was ready for something new  and started reading. Coincidentally the PBS documentary of the same title by Reisen and Nancy Porter came out at the same time.

Getting to Louisa’s writing

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches"

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”

Reisen’s love of Louisa’s canon finally got me to read Louisa’s books for the first time. In River of Grace I write,

It began not with Little Women, but with Hospital Sketches, a thinly veiled memoir of [Louisa’s] experience as a Civil War nurse. Her moving description of the death of a virtuous soldier named John Suhre and how she had nursed him acted as a soothing balm on my grief. She described death as noble, and her belief in the afterlife was unmistakable. Where once I had felt a kinship with Louisa because of our mutually shared mood swings, deep tempers, and passions for our art; now I identified with the woman who found sacredness and hope in death just as I had. While Louisa wrote mainly to support her family, it seemed that the act of creating helped her to work through her own grief after the tragic passing of her younger sister Elizabeth whom she called her “conscience” and “spiritual guide.” (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

This time I determined that my little reading binge would end with reading books and visiting Louisa’s home. I had to find other people as obsessed as I was with Louisa. It was just too much fun discussing my passion (which I did for an hour on the phone with Harriet Reisen; God bless her for indulging a total stranger!).

The seed was planted and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion was born on this day, August 18, in 2010.

Little did I know as I plunged deeper in to my passion that Louisa was acting as my guide through my grief. I had not been able cry over my mother because I was numb inside. I could not even remember anything about her except as she had been during the last few months: sick, ravaged, terrified and demented. I had been in battle mode for the last two years and that feeling continued for another year after she died.

Remembering Mommy

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

Louisa helped to draw me close to my mother again especially as I thumbed through her own copies of Little Women and Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag (Vol. 5) with her signed name plate. Slowly I recalled the vibrant, intelligent woman with “pizzaz” (as my brother-in-law called it). Mommy was curious and loved to learn. She poured over books and audited classes at her alma mater, Wellesley College. She was funny, animated (with a voice like a parrot), thoughtful and kind, and always interesting.

Beyond consolation

But more was happening as I read about and then wrote about Louisa: this passion was resurrecting my then-dormant creative life. Louisa’s own grief journey, beginning with the death of Lizzie, the marriage of Anna, and then continuing with the soldiers she had nursed (especially John Suhre), and how it had transformed her life and writing, helped me to understand what was happening:

I believe that the caring for and losing her sister acted as a catalyst to Louisa May Alcott’s transformation as an artist and a woman. The creative gifts of storytelling, play acting, and humor that she had used to minister to Lizzie were subsequently shared with countless soldiers, helping them to while away their lonely hours of pain. Letters sent home to family told the stories of the wounded. These stories, laced with humor and told with urgent realism and heart, compiled Hospital Sketches, a book which resonated with thousands of readers anxious for those first-hand accounts. Louisa’s creative gifts were honed and perfected through her painful journey. This nineteenth century author now was helping me to understand my own grief. She, like me, seemed to find an energy in grief and took action to work through it. We shared a common spirituality even though our religious backgrounds were quite different (I being Catholic, she influenced by her father’s Transcendentalism). To her, God was a loving Father and faithful Friend who revealed himself in nature and in everyday life. I too related to God in this fashion, seeing him in the natural world and in people around me, feeling him through the love of family and friends, tasting and being nourished by him in the sacred bread and the wine, and discerning him through prayer, the scriptures and reflection. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

One thing leads to another

Before I knew it, I was feeling the urge to learn more about writing. This led to dreams of crafting a book … and the rest, as they say, is history.

Has Louisa acted as a grief counselor for you? What do you think of her writing on death? Does it strike a chord with you?

To all of you

THANK YOU for your readership and especially for your friendship over these past 5 years. I have had to pleasure of meeting many of you in person and yes, we gabbed about Louisa and will continue to do so. :-) This passion never grows old but only grows deeper, thanks to all of you!

Seems appropriate on this, the fifth anniversary of this blog, to share this video one more time with you where I express in music and images my love of the Alcott family and my gratitude to Louisa for being my grief counselor and writing guide:

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New book in the works on Little Women


Anne Boyd Rioux, author and a member of the Louisa May Alcott Society, has just been given a grant to write her new book called Reading Little Women.: The History of an American Classic. As you will see from her post, she was quoted in a recent article in the Washington Post about making scholarly writing more accessible to the public (I posted this article on my blog’s Facebook page). Anne has an email list you can join to keep up to date with this exciting project. I look forward to hearing more!

Originally posted on Anne Boyd Rioux:

Last week I learned that I will be receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write my next book, Reading Little Women: The History of an American Classic. The grant comes from the NEH’s new Public Scholar program, which generated some media attention, including this Washington Post article, in which I am quoted. I am thrilled to be able to begin work on a project that is very close to my heart.

Little Women--2

I have been inspired by two recent books that can best be described as the “biography” of a book: Michael Gorra’s The Portrait of a Novel (about Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady) and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. They were both highly enjoyable accounts of how those classic novels were written and how they impacted the authors’ and others’ lives. As Little Women nears its 150th birthday in 2018, I…

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Places that are redemptive, and damning: Monday presentation by Stephen Burby at the Summer Conversational Series

Note: Mr. Burby kindly gave me his presentation (handwritten notes and all) in lieu of the fact that I was unable to attend the Monday session of the Summer Conversational Series. I thank him for doing so.

This is a longer post than usual as I found his presentation to be quite thought-provoking.

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Before attending this series, I was woefully ignorant of the concept of “place. ” Intuitively I understand about the need to create sacred spaces, whether it be places for prayer and contemplation, or rooms where I can create writing and music. I go to great lengths to create these spaces, considering every last physical detail such that entering these spaces immediately puts me into the “zone” where I can accomplish what I wish to do. Inhabiting such spaces brings me a great sense of happiness, peace and accomplishment.

A wider concept

I never understood however, the wider concept of place and sacred spaces; the speakers at last week’s Conversational Series have opened up a new world for me, a fresh lens from which to contemplate what I read in books and see around me.



Louisa and place

560 steve burby1Mr. Burby’s presentation, “Out into the World:” Louisa May Alcott’s Sense of the World Beyond Concord.” continues to prime that pump. He begins by citing two classics by which he frames his discussion: Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. He maintains that Louisa’s writing,

“frequently deals with the transfer of the sacredness from good individuals, most often in the form of the sacred feminine, to the spaces they come to inhabit.”

The place of home

Bachelard states that

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home …”

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

Little Women Dramatic Reading on Librivox

We see this time and again in Louisa’s works, particularly in Little Women, where the home is central to the development of the characters. Bachelard points out the positives (“We shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection…) as well as the negatives (“tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the stanchest ramparts.”). He also writes, “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” This is played out to perfection in Little Women.

Burby illustrates both sides of Bachelard’s notion of home, first through Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, and then through A Long Fatal Love-Chase.

Redemptive spaces

In Hospital Sketches and My Contraband, Burby shows how Louisa uses the Eternal Feminine (in the forms of nurses Tribulation Periwinkle and Faith Dane), to transform space from profane to sacred by injecting goodness, mercy, empathy, kindness and understanding.

hospital sketchesA woman’s influence

Burby cites Louisa’s description of the hospital in Hospital Sketches where she describes the “vilest odors” and chaotic atmosphere. Nurse Periwinkle seeks to transform that space:

“After bathing and dressing wounds for a number of them [the wounded soldiers], the scene is partially transformed.”

When she takes over the night shift, Nurse Periwinkle is given greater control over her environment, thus completing the transformation:

“By eleven, the last labor of love was done; the last ‘good night’ spoken; and, if any needed a reward for that day’s work, they surely received it, in the silent eloquence of those long lines of faces, showing pale and peaceful glances that lighted us to bed, where Rest, the sweetest, made our pillows soft, while Night and Nature took our places, filling that great house of pain with a healing miracles of Sleep, and his diviner brother, Death.”

Dual vocations

hospital sketches illustrationIf I might digress for a moment: in reading Burby’s citations and his analysis of Louisa’s transformation of space, it made me wonder about about Louisa. We know she had a vocation as a writer, but she also sensed a vocation for nursing. She was aware of her talent in both areas. She had had the opportunity to live each out, by nursing her sister Elizabeth which led to her ability to serve as a Civil War nurse, and by writing about such experiences and more. Both vocations served others well, one by healing and the other by providing.

As a nurse …

In each case Louisa could play out the role of Savior, a role both satisfying and burdensome to her. Yet which vocation was the most satisfying and which the more burdensome? Nursing brought her face to face with life at its core: brutally authentic, vulnerable and poignant. She could see the immediate consequence of her ministrations, whether it was to bring healing, comfort, consolation or just her presence as Death loomed. It was Lizzie who told Louisa how much that presence brought her strength as she faced her own painful end.

… and as a writer

Louisa_May_AlcottSuch life experiences were then expressed through Louisa’s writing, especially in Hospital Sketches and Little Women. Those of us who are writers know how cathartic, even exhilarating it can be to process feelings and get them down on paper, sometimes in poetic prose if we’re lucky. Writing brought its benefits to Louisa, relieving the chronic poverty and bringing material comfort and security at last to the “Pathetic Family.”

The costs

Both vocations exacted their costs. Nursing brought on the typhoid pneumonia which robbed Louisa of her good health for a life time. It sobered her greatly with memories that could never be forgotten.

Writing stole away Louisa’s cherished privacy and free creative expression, while too exacting a cost on her health.

So which vocation most satisfied Louisa? Which one was more worth the cost? Likely both were equally important and worked in tandem with each other. But these were questions that came to my mind as I read Mr. Burby’s presentation. There is no doubt that some of Louisa’s finest writing comes from her nursing experience.

Transformation of space brings redemption

civil war mulattoIn My Contraband, Burby shows how that same chaotic and dark space, the hospital, is transformed by presence of Nurse Faith Dane. Yet in this case, it is more about the transformation of persons within that space: Bob, the recently freed and wronged slave and his vicious white half brother who had killed Bob’s lover. While the half brother is not redeemed, Bob turns away from doing his brother harm thanks to the efforts of Nurse Dane. Burby writes,

“And it is here that the protagonist is able to assert her influence in the most positive way possible, turning the man–her contraband [to whom she was deeply attracted], the former slave, Bob–away from tragic revenge.”

The transformation is complete when Bob consummates their relationship in a symbolic and spiritual way, taking on her last name as his own; he would now be known as Robert Dane.

A place of damnation

long fatal love chase2Burby then turns to A Long Fatal Love-Chase to demonstrate how a beautiful space does not always denote goodness. He notes in particular a long description of the setting of Valrosa, Tempest’s villa in Nice. Burby believes that since Louisa had visited Nice during her first trip to Europe, it was likely she was describing a real place. He goes on to write,

“The description of Valrosa … suggests that is the finest setting for Rosamond, the protagonist … She is unconsciously the fairest and most striking ‘object’ in the setting.”

He points out that the beauty of the setting was illusory as Rosamond’s lover Tempest turns out to be her Mephistopheles.

Evil dominating

In this case, despite the presence of a female protagonist, Valrosa changed from a sacred to a profane place because of the domineering power of Tempest and the false premise upon which the space was based. Rosamond could not turn him.

Triumph of the Eternal Feminine

Thus Burby demonstrates Louisa’s realism yet again: life does not always turn out right. Goodness does not always prevail. In Louisa’s thrillers, goodness rarely prevails.

Yet the writing of hers that survives through the ages in the imaginations of many are the ones where the Eternal Feminine does in fact, triumph.

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Rose in Bloom: Endings and beginnings

I am glad that I somehow got the idea from another blog that Mac and Rose did not get together. It pained me to see how Mac wooed her and she would not give in. When he shared his Thoreau essays with her and found them well received, it pained me again. So you can imagine my surprise and joy when in fact, the story of Rose in Bloom ended exactly as I hoped it would.

Thoreau yet again

thoreauI had to smile at the injection of Henry David Thoreau into the story. Louisa was not shy in showing her immense admiration of the man. I think Mac was the best representation yet of Thoreau—a seeker both intellectually and spiritually. Mac was a Thoreau who grew into the idea of sharing his life with a woman and finding happiness and fulfillment in that relationship.

Perfect pairings but no perfect marriages

While David Sterling was also a Thoreau-like figure who gave his life to Christie Devon in Work A Story of Experience, there was something more satisfying to me about Mac. Louisa, however, never took the relationships beyond the marrying: David was killed off in the Civil War, and Rose in Bloom ended with Mac and Rose agreeing to marry. I realize that Louisa, having never married herself, perhaps did not feel qualified to explore marriage but I would have like to have seen her ideal of marriage played out. She certainly did a fine job of describing Meg’s marriage to John (particularly when it came to raising the babies).

Justice for Phebe

Phebe was finally accepted into the family because of her care of Uncle Alec during his illness. It’s unfortunate that she had to prove her worth in order to be accepted, considering the fact that she was already worthy despite not coming from a noted family. I was glad to see that Aunt Plenty came around although I had to wonder if she would have had Uncle Alec not survived.

phebe and alec

Love and genius

So all was well that ended well. I enjoyed Rose in Bloom very much with its overall theme of talent versus genius and the conclusion that one could be a genius at things not associated with the fine arts (in Rose’s case, in giving to others). Dr. Cathlin Davis was indeed correct about Louisa’s premise that love was the necessary element to spark true genius as love prods us to move beyond ourselves to something bigger.

Becoming a single parent



Adult issues such as alcoholism (see previous post) and single parenthood were also explored. Louisa had a remarkable talent for introducing potentially controversial issues in such a stealth manner such that one never notices they are in fact controversial; it was part of her own genius. It’s interesting to me that she introduced the idea of a single woman adopting a child before she had done it herself with Lulu. It reveals a longing that May’s tragic death was able to fulfill.

Rose in Bloom was a satisfying read and I thank everyone here who so heartily recommended it. You, dear readers, are the experts on Louisa’s canon and I appreciate you educating me.

Which book shall we discuss next? Leave a comment with your suggestion.


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Rose in Bloom: Charlie

Are you taking part in the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, sponsored by this blog and In the Bookcase? It’s not too late to jump in! After reading this post, head on over to In the Bookcase and read all about it.

My choice is Rose in Bloom and here is my third post on it:

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I have often found Louisa May Alcott’s books to be fairly predictable. While some of her potboilers consider cruel twists (as in Rosamond’s death in A Long Fatal Love-Chase), even then, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.

However, the tragic life and death of Charlie Campbell in Rose in Bloom really through me for a loop!

Charlie was a man who seemingly had it all: talent, promise charisma and good looks. Art, music, theatre and study all come easily to him, perhaps too easily. He would not settle down and apply himself preferring to enjoy himself. He could have been the shining star of the Campbell clan. But he lacked ambition and character.

cathlin 560

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Dr. Cathlin Davis spoke extensively about talent and genius at the Summer Conversational Series in 2014. She mentioned Charlie’s talent and lack of ambition and concluded that “ambition without love will never attain genius.”

It makes me wonder what would have happened to Charlie had Rose loved him – would that love have turned him around, teaching him how to love in return? It’s interesting that Louisa opted not to take that route as it would have been the predictable one to take — women were so often portrayed as saving men from their lesser selves. In fact, Uncle Alec warned Rose of loving Charlie before he was worthy:

Will you help?” he asked, stopping suddenly with a look that made her stand up straight and strong as she answered with an eager voice: “I will.”

“Then don’t love him yet.”

That startled her, but she asked steadily, though her heart began to beat and her color to come: “Why not?”

“Firstly, because no woman should give her happiness into the keeping of a man without fixed principles; secondly, because the hope of being worthy of you will help him more than any prayers or preaching of mine. Thirdly, because it will need all our wit and patience to undo the work of nearly four and twenty years. You understand what I mean?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you say ‘no’ when he asks you to say ‘yes’ and wait a little for your happiness?”

“I can.”

“And will you?”

“I will.”

Thus, instead of the usual “woman saves the man,” the man must save himself first with the idea that the woman will wait for him. Louisa is putting the responsibility solely on Charlie to straighten himself out.

Through Charlie Louisa makes her feelings clear about temperance – alcohol is an evil that destroys lives. Being a drunkard is a source of terrible shame. She uses Rose as the means of stirring up that shame within Charlie. In Chapter 9, “New Year’s Calls,” Rose discerns the true extent of Charlie’s problem with alcohol and becomes fearful of him when drunk:

“Don’t be angry, dearest look at me as you did this morning, and I’ll swear never to sing another note if you say so. I’m only a little gay we drank your health handsomely, and they all congratulated me. Told ’em it wasn’t out yet. Stop, though I didn’t mean to mention that. No matter I’m always in a scrape, but you always forgive me in the sweetest way. Do it now, and don’t be angry, little darling.” And, dropping the vase, he went toward her with a sudden excitement that made her shrink behind the chair.

She was not angry, but shocked and frightened, for she knew now what the matter was and grew so pale, he saw it and asked pardon before she could utter a rebuke.

Rose makes it clear to Charlie that he must give up drinking or she will have nothing to do with him. Eventually she appeals to his better self and he vows to change, even preparing to go away halfway across the world to visit his father to get away from those who would cause his downfall.

And here’s where the story takes a terrible turn. As I read Chapter 15, I hoped against hope it would end differently. Charlie went out to bid farewell to his friends and was not strong enough to resist temptation. Upon coming home that he fell off his horse in his inebriated state and was mortally wounded. Even when Dr. Alec pronounced that there was no hope, I thought for sure Charlie would recover. That chapter ended with bitter tears on my part.

louisaIt also ended with a growing respect for Louisa as a writer who presented life as it truly was – glorious at times, and other times ugly and tragic. She truly loved and respected her younger readers. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into it.

I believe that too.

cathlin davis notesYou can download a PDF file of my notes from Dr. Davis’ presentation at the Summer Conversational Series 2014: dr. cathlin davis talent and genius

How did you feel when Charlie died?

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