Like Louisa May Alcott, many women served as Civil War nurses in various capacities

I recently reviewed an interactive book-on-app called Civil War Truce for a Catholic website (see review). It was developed by the 5-woman team of Davis Studio. Civil War Truce tells the fascinating story of a young nun, Sr. Mary Lucy Dosh, whose lovely singing and tender care impacted the lives of countless Civil War soldiers.

Similarities to another famous Civil War nurse

I saw many parallels between Sr. Lucy’s selfless and passionate commitment to the soldiers, and Louisa May Alcott’s. While Louisa ministered to the soldiers with her humor, storytelling (especially by becoming Dickens’ Sairey Gamp) and natural maternal instinct, Sr. Lucy quietly sang to her “boys” while caring for their needs.

Devotion trumps fear

Civil-War-NurseEach woman was fearless in her devotion to the men; each witnessed countless amputations, endured filthy hospital conditions and saw death on a daily basis. Each risked her life by exposing herself to infectious diseases.

While Alcott’s service took place in Washington, D.C., Sr. Lucy and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth served in Kentucky. To Alcott and Sr. Lucy, it mattered not whether the soldiers were Confederate or Union.

Called to something greater

Sr. Lucy was originally known as Barbara Dosh. Her original goal in life was to be “admired, to have money and pleasure, and enjoy myself in the world.” She attracted admirers with her gracious singing and was eventually adopted by the wealthy Stout family who granted her every wish. Barbara had spent several years at St. Vincent’s Academy before being adopted by the Stouts and felt homesick for her companions, the sisters. This helped to instill in her the call to the religious life.

Called to serve and to suffer

From there she and the other sisters were called to serve as nurses during the Civil War. Like Alcott, Sr. Lucy contracted typhoid but unlike Alcott, did not survive. Both women however, impacted the lives of the soldiers in such a degree that they were honored by them: soldiers who had been attended to by Sr. Lucy stood by her body round the clock until a memorial service could be held. In Alcott’s case, the Concord regiment stopped in front of her home at Orchard House (where she had been sent due to the typhoid, and pneumonia) and gave her a salute.

Alcott’s lasting legacy of course was Hospital Sketches.

Lincoln’s commendation

Abraham Lincoln praised the sisters in “all forms of benevolence and charity;” their devotion to the soldiers and their efficiency in their work—his full statement can be read in the accompanying graphic.

 

Civil War Truce offers the fascinating and well-researched story of courage, compassion and charity shown by women the religious life in service to our soldiers.

You can find out more about Civil War Truce at www.civilwartruce.com. You can download it to your Apple on Android device; the cost is $2.99. As previously mentioned, the app is an interactive book with animation, sound effects, old films and vintage photographs. The layout is attractive and reminiscent of the Civil War era. Exhaustive notes and a bibliography are provided. I recommend viewing it on a tablet as the type is quite small.

Meet today’s version of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy from “The March Family Letters”

In part two of my behind-the-scenes look at “The March Family Letters,” we meet the March Sisters through a series of questions I posed to them:

meg marchMeg

What is your line of work?
As well as working towards a bachelor’s in engineering, I supplement my income by tutoring lower years.

Would you consider yourself to be excessively busy?
Incredibly. But it will be worth it in the end.

How long did you have to pin your hair back to cover up Jo’s mistake? I’m amazed you loaned her your dress after that debacle!
I had to hide my hair for weeks. It was very inconvenient.

And I am amazed at myself too; I don’t know what I was thinking. But it worked out because Jo managed to return the dress to me in a surprisingly flawless condition.

Finally, what is your view regarding and career, marriage and children? How do you intend to juggle/balance all of these?
I believe it is possible to have it all. I intend to work hard at my career to earn enough so I may be financially stable and can enjoy the finer things in life. I will marry an independently wealthy husband and between the two of us, I will be able to settle down comfortably and raise our children.

jo marchJo

What is your true ambition?
I want to be able to use what I love to not only support my family, but also to make a difference. The last thing I want is to be stuck doing something with my life that I’m not completely passionate about.

Have you ever been in love and if so, with whom?
I have dated in the past, but saying I was ever in love would be a huge overstatement.

Do you see yourself falling in love?
I mean, it’s possible that I might in the future, but it’s really not something I can picture happening to me at this point.

Do you have hopes of being famous someday?
Being famous isn’t a goal of mine, but I hope that one day my films will make a meaningful impact.

How do you feel about marriage and motherhood, and do you see it as a part of your future? How will you feel if one of your sisters marries first?
Marriage and motherhood are all well and good for some people (and no disrespect to those who choose that path), but I don’t really think it’s for me. I admire my mother and father immensely for all the work and love they put into raising us, but I don’t have a desire to do it myself. It definitely wouldn’t bother me if one of my sisters were to marry first, but I would want them to wait until they’ve had time to experience life as their own person separate from a relationship.

beth marchBeth

How do you feel around family and friends?
I love my family very much so of course being around my family then makes me happy. They have a way of making me feel like everything will be okay as long as we have each other.

Do you daydream?
When I listen to music I often get lost in the story the music creates for me.

How does music speak to you, and does it speak for you sometimes?
A lot of the time music does speak for me. It is my way of expressing the things I don’t know how to say with just words. One of the most amazing things about music is the way it connects people. The fact the same lyrics can mean so many different things to so many different people, and yet it brings those people together is one of the many things that makes music so beautiful.

amy marchAmy

Do you hope to become a successful artist, one who can make her living by creating and selling her art?
I do indeed have aspirations of being a successful artist, for I fear that keeping my talents to myself would be a terribly selfish thing to do. I think the world is in need of a fresh perspective and a powerful young female artist, and I am here to provide.

What art medium are you most talented at?
I prefer drawing in ink-based tools as to properly master them you must be quite sure of your talents and your instincts. And I believe that is what is best captured by my work, an instinctive confidence in the undiscovered and the imperfections of aesthetics.

Does your art have any particular message?
I try to most dubiously depict the supernatural in order to create a commentary on our society’s absurd beauty standards, and its phobia of aberrate social constructs. The mere concept of “social norms” irritates me to my core, as I believe we are all but visitors on this planet, and thus we cannot conceivably adhere to arbitrary rules made up by years of bias and misinformed history. I am appalled that my sisters and I will face challenges and discrimination as persons whom would fall under the category of “non-traditional” identities, because I think each of us offer our own unique beauty and talent to the world.

Are you drawn to the bohemian life?
I cannot say that I am, though I will recognize the challenge the ideology presents.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I see myself at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and at the top of my class, perhaps while doing a fellowship.

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A modern take on Little Women: Behind the scenes of the YouTube series, “The March Family Letters”

I’ve been so enjoying The March Family Letters and I hope you have been too. Naturally, I was curious to learn more about how it came about.

the march family letters header

I recently had the pleasure of chatting via email with the series producer and showrunner Sarah Shelson; in part one of the interview she shares how the series came to be and how the March sisters were re-imagined for the present day.

What made you decide to produce this series? What is your connection to Little Women?

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).I have loved the Little Women novel ever since I was little. It was one of my mom’s favourite novels as well. I love how unique all the sisters are and their bond for each other, I love Marmee’s loving advice and I love the way that when I would reread the book, it was like returning home. I wanted to produce this series because I selfishly wanted modern little women to exist. There are also a lot of themes in the original novel that were appealing to me to explore from a modern perspective.

Were you concerned at all with re-imagining the March sisters for the twenty-first century? How did you decide on the various physical and character traits for each sister? For example:

  • Why did you imagine Meg as a workaholic and perfectionist?
  • Why is Beth portrayed as sullen as well as thoughtful when in the original story she was cheerful?
  • Why does Amy wear glasses?
  • Why is Jo a blond?

Very concerned! The March sisters are such beloved characters that we wanted to make sure that we were true to the spirit of the characters in the novel. So that’s how we decided on the character traits. By looking at the original novel and imagining how the character’s desires and journeys translate into the modern age. As for physical traits, these were less important to us than an actor’s ability to portray the character well. To address your specific questions:

the march family letters

In the novel, Meg is a hard worker and aspires to behave like the higher class. Our Meg has had a lot of pressure put on her by being the oldest child and having to take care of her sisters a lot. Just like in the book, she is very driven to realize her dreams and follow through on her plans. She hasn’t learned yet that she doesn’t need to try so hard all the time.

Beth hasn’t been on camera much yet, so I think the audience has only seen a small glimpse of her. And cameras make Beth nervous, so in the first couple videos we see her, her behaviour is shaded by that. As the series goes on and Beth becomes more comfortable on camera, we’ll get to see her open up more.

march family letters episodes 4 and 5

Amy aspires to be taken seriously and be treated like an adult. She has adopted the hipster aesthetic and behaviour to try to come across as more mature. In her eyes, the glasses complete the ensemble. We call her our little faux-hipster.

Jo is a blonde for the simple reason that the actress we cast for her is a blonde. We are both a low budget web series and a project filmed over a long period of time. It wouldn’t be fair to our actors to ask them to dye their hair for the role and we don’t have the resources to pull-off a convincing wig.

What kind of research did you need to do in order to get into the heads and hearts of the sisters?

little women in the garretReading the original novel more times than I can count was definitely high on the list. I also spent a lot of time reading commentary on the book and its characters. The sorts of critiques people have had about it, interpretations of the characters, thematic analyses, that sort of thing. And the last bit of big research I did was for character aspects that I don’t have any lived experience for. For example, I don’t have social anxiety, but it was very important to me that we portrayed Beth’s social anxiety in an authentic way. So I read a lot of information sites as well as first person accounts from people sharing their own experiences.

How long did it take to get The March Family Letters into production? What characteristics were you looking for in your actors? How did you decide on YouTube as the place for viewing the series?

the march family letters logoIt’s been a long journey to production! We decided to produce the series pilot in December 2013. We released that video in March 2014. And then we didn’t start filming the main series until October 2014. And we’re still in production right now, filming the second half of the series! For our actors, we looked for people who were passionate about the project, were comfortable addressing the camera directly, had energies that complimented and contrasted each other, resembled sisters and of course, brought the characters to life the way we envisioned. And finally, YouTube seemed like the best place to distribute the series because of both the engagement opportunities, our target audience’s familiarity with the platform, and the fact that our series has such strong ties to YouTube video styles.

Should the series prove successful, are there plans for a sequel?

For sure! This current run of episodes won’t take us through the whole ‘Little Women’ novel and we would love to get the chance to adapt the whole story.

Stayed tuned!

In part two of this interview, I get to ask questions of the sisters themselves! Coming soon …

Put this at the end of every blog post:

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Available for pre-order: The Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson

Author John MattesonI am pleased to announce The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller.

This volume will contain over 200 illustrations. It is being published by W. W, Norton and Company, the same group which published the popular Norton edition of Little Women.

You can pre-order your copy now from Norton or from Amazon. It contains an amazing 668 pages! The book is expected out in the Fall of 2015.

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Little Women in a changing world: Chapter Two of The Afterlife of Little Women– “Waxing Nostalgic 1900-1930,” part one

In the early twentieth century the world was changing at a breathtaking rate. As a country we moved onto the global stage with the Great War. Dazzling technological innovations created time- and work-saving devices along with new entertainment venues. Medical breakthroughs promised longer and healthier lives. Now that day-to-day survival was no longer the all-consuming task, people had time for leisure, to think and to create.

How did Little Women fare in this changing world?

Beverly Lyon Clark, in her book, The Afterlife of Little Women, indicates that people were already waxing nostalgic about Little Women even though the book was only thirty-two years old by 1900. Adults generally found the book to be “old-fashioned” while children continued to love it. (pg. 42).

Do you consider Little Women to be timely despite its age? What about the book transcends time?

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenDespite the book’s enduring popularity, Little Women was not held in high esteem by scholars mostly because children’s literature had not yet attained any status. (pg. 43). Yet G. K. Chesterton notes that there are “few women in England, from the most revolutionary Suffragette to the most carefully preserved Early Victorian, who will not confess to having passed a happy childhood with the Little Women of Miss Alcott.” (pg. 48). The universal appeal of Little Women speaks to Louisa’s genius, a genius nurtured by an upbringing combining progressive ideas with traditional values.

What are the universal themes of Little Women? Why does it still speak to you today?

gamaliel bradfordIn his essay, “Portrait of Louisa May Alcott,” Gamaliel Bradford was one of the few who praised Louisa’s artistry: “The worshippers of art for art’s sake may sneer at her but the great poets don’t necessarily deserve much more of our gratitude than those who make our souls forget by telling charming stories.” (pg. 53-54). Clark notes that Bradford observed that Louisa may have been motivated more out of a sense of duty rather than love to help her family out of poverty.

Do you consider Little Women to be a work of art? Why or why not?

Yet it is the safer traditional values of home and family that maintained the book’s popularity, generating the spinoffs of a Broadway play, two silent films and several novel series. With World War I jading the population, Little Women was likely seen as a return to “the good old days” despite being considered “too sweet” by many in the tumultuous twenties (pg. 49).

The adaptations began with children’s books. Clark writes, “If ‘publishers complain of the scarcity of good books for girls, and their readers say that no successor to Louisa Alcott has yet to come to view,’ then one approach was to reframe Little Women.” (pg. 58). She lists Seven Little Australians (1894) by Ethel Turner, Sisters Three (1900) by Jessie Mansergh, The Little Women Club by Ames Taggart, Four Little Women of Roxby, or The Queer Old Lady Who Lost Her Way (1926) by May Hollis Barton, and the four books in Gabrielle Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-14).

three little womenOf these books Clark found the Three Little Women series to be the “most interesting in how it addresses the cultural moment even as it attests the continuing significance of Little Women … For it harbors inconsistencies that speak to cultural contradictions at the beginning of the century, especially those associated with the occupational opportunities available to the New woman and the continuing expectations of domesticity, at a time when Alcott might be called ‘one of the finest of pioneer American business girls.'” (pg. 62)

A detailed analysis of this series, along with other adaptations and spinoffs (including the Broadway play as we shall see, and the silent films) begs the conclusion that while Louisa was lauded, she was not to be imitated.

What I found most interesting in Clark’s analysis was the differing interpretation of “littleness” in Alcott’s book and Jackson’s. Frances Armstrong has noted that for Alcott littleness at times entailed diminishment but at other time was a means to greatness. In Jackson’s novels–with their “little girls,” “little mothers,” “pretty little rooms,” “trembling little fingers”–diminishment is the rule.” (pg. 67)

Did Jackson miss the deeper spiritual dimension of littleness as described by Alcott? Beth was indeed “little” but she demonstrates largeness in her example of courage with the Hummels, literally risking her life to comfort the dying baby. Her tending to headless doll Joanna provides a metaphor for a more public caring of the disabled, aka, the “least of these.” In exploring the spiritual dimension of littleness, Alcott uncovers its greatness. Judging from Armstrong’s remarks, Jackson appears to have missed that point entirely, reflecting a more secular approach to the story.

How do you think Louisa viewed “littleness?” How do you feel about the character of Beth?

In part two of this post, I will discuss the Broadway play (which, by the way, is available for free through Google Play Books; it’s called “Little Women: A Comedy in Four Acts” by Marion de Forest) and silent films, and the creation of the Orchard House museum home.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women – Fiction, Fame and Romanticism 1868-1900

Continuing our discussion …

Looking at fiction

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenLittle Women was a subversive work in many ways, putting new ideas into the heads of children while managing not to upset their parents. One such idea was its endorsement of reading fiction. According to Beverly Lyon Clark, a leading authority on children’s literature, children were not encouraged to read fiction because of the way it absorbed the mind. Of Little Women‘s influence she writes, “its other oral would seem to endorse the pleasures of subverting adults’ strictures and of reveling in the glory of fiction.” She continues, “the text sets up two models for reading: readers have generally followed Jo’s enthusiastic example for their own reading even if they may endorse the moralizing model when they image how reading Little Women should affect others, especially those others are young.” (pg. 10)

If you read Little Women as a child, what was your reaction to Jo’s love of reading? Perhaps like me, you read it as an adult–did you find Jo’s enthusiasm infectious and if so, how?

Bronson’s influence

Louisa was compelled to write Little Women not only by her publisher but by her father, in part because he was promised publication of his book, Tablets, if she complied. But Bronson’s desire was genuine–he felt certain his daughter could write the perfect children’s book as he had shaped and molded Louisa and her sisters in his own image (or at least, attempted to). At any rate, he knew she would want to please him. While Bronson encouraged his daughters to read fiction, he deplored many of the books of his day. Little Women was to fulfill his desire for the perfect children’s book.

How much of Bronson’s influence do you see in Little Women despite the fact that Mr. March plays such a small role in the story?

I am currently going through my second reading of Little Women (listening, by the way, to a wonderful dramatic reading, available free on Librivox) and I see Bronson’s influence everywhere, from the use of Pilgrim’s Progress as the backdrop to the spiritual and moral lessons in the book. While Louisa could not seem to embody her father in a major character role, Mr. March is quite “present” despite his absence.

Why did Louisa May Alcott seem so approachable?

louisa readingLouisa deplored her fame even as she had wished for such as a child. Why did readers feel so bonded to her? And what was so onerous about it to Louisa?

Clark writes on page 20, “An early twentieth-century biographer declared that Alcott ‘felt the annoyances of glory more that most authors.’ But it seems likely that she was besieged more than most.” She goes on to cite sales of Little Women and writes, “Alcott was also a woman: she would have seemed more approachable than a ‘great man’ would, and … she had no wife or personal assistant to protect her. As an author whose works targeted children (as well as adults), she must have seemed more approachable still. Finally, given how autobiographical her Little Women series was, and given her willingness to call herself Aunt Jo, readers who felt intimate with the fictional Jo March seem to have felt intimate with Alcott. As an obituarist noted, ‘She wrote so much of her own life into books that she was nearer to the public than most writers.'”

Imagine yourself in Louisa’s time–would you have approached her? What would you have said to her? Do you think her fans were too intrusive?

I probably would have been too embarrassed myself to approach her and might have been disappointed in what I saw. I get the sense that Louisa could not always find it within herself to be gracious to fans. An inherently shy woman, the level of fame she experienced must have been excruciating at times. Still, that fame gave her entry into virtually any place where she could hob knob with other well accomplished and famous people. One of the things I most enjoyed about Madeleine B. Stern’s biography was how she described the pleasure Louisa sometimes took in her fame.

pickwick portfolioI think about the five Luken sisters who wrote to Louisa about the newspaper they published that was fashioned after the Pickwick Portfolio. How glorious it must have been to have the author of Little Women endorse your efforts! Louisa even made free contributions to the newspaper, impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the sisters.

Louisa the Romantic

jo writing (norman rockwell)As much as Louisa denied adopting the philosophy of her father, she could not prevent herself from living it. As Transcendentalism was influenced by the Romantic era in Europe, it makes perfect sense that drama queen Louisa (who I believe also had a martyr complex) would adopt such colorful images of herself as the artist possessed by her writing in the garret. She could not escape her upbringing no matter how hard she tried. She was excessively pragmatic in order to undo the damage of her father’s way of living that so deprived the family of material necessities and basic security. But at the same time her upbringing oozed through her writing and this is what attracted so many readers. It was so different, deep and inspiring to girls leading dull and limited lives. Jo March represented a breaking out of sorts, not only with seeking a career over marriage, but in her basic personality: her reading habits, the way she behaved, her use of the vernacular, and just the very fact that she lived her tomboy desires openly. Jo may not have always been the most likable character but she was real.

What is it about Jo March that attracts you? How has she inspired you?

I admit that Jo has not always been my favorite sister. I was first attracted to Beth as a child and always associated her name with beauty. As an adult I came to appreciate Amy as I learned more about her real counterpart, May. But now that I have become a writer, Jo is speaking to me. She hides out in the garret; I hide out in my cellar room decorated with posters of Norman Rockwell paintings of Jo. I love the whole romantic image of Jo as a writer and an artist. I relate to her bad temper, her unbridled enthusiasm and her desire to lead an uncompromising, authentic life.

There is much more in Chapter One but I will leave that for you to read in The Afterlife of Little Women. The next post will dive into Chapter Two: Waxing Nostaligic 1900-1930.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women: “Everybody’s Aunt 1868-1900″

the afterlife of little womenTime for a deep dive! Let’s examine the introduction and Chapter One of The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark.

First a disclaimer. This and subsequent posts on The Afterlife of Little Women is a summary of the notes I scribbled on the pages of Beverly Lyon Clark’s book; I am giving you the highlights of my reading experience. I cannot trace my opinions to any particular source; they simply come from my immersion in Louisa May Alcott’s life and works. Feel free to prove me wrong; the idea of this free-for-all is to have a lively discussion. Many of you know way more than I do!

Let’s begin …

Introduction

I first loved this quote from page 4: “… at the turn of the previous century, reading was both ‘an esteemed practice’ and ‘a wellspring of aspiration'; indeed, ‘at once study and play. A source of knowledge and pleasure, public performance and private dreaming, reading opened up space like no other.”

How many of you still find that true today?

It occurs to me that reading can still be that virtual trip to exotic places, interesting people and new ideas. It’s finding that quiet space to let it happen that is the challenge with technology always competing for our time.

In the introduction Clark writes, “Alcott’s critical reputation was still at a low point, but Little Women continued to be popular … Alcott’s standing … changed since 1960, in the wake of the feminist movement and of the publication of Alcott’s lost thrillers …” (pg. 7)

paulineWhy was Little Women so popular, so loved by so many, and yet couldn’t merit the critical acclaim of serious literature? Why was its author summarily dismissed as merely a children’s writer until the revelation of her potboilers?

It is ironic to me that it was her so-called “rubbish” that brought her the serious attention she deserved. It’s like she had to become a “bad girl” in order to be respected. And yet today these potboilers would be akin to the Harlequin romance.

I realize that the whole genre of children’s literature did not gain respect until recently; perhaps Little Women‘s critical standing will improve on that account.

Chapter One: Becoming Everyone’s Aunt, 1868-1900

Louisa_May_AlcottOn page 9, Clark quotes Louisa’s famous line: “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

Of this quote I would like to make two points:

First, Louisa had great difficulty in being recognized as a serious artist. While they generally cited “the thorough reality of her characters, her ‘power of intense realization and portraiture,’ ‘her thorough genuineness and steady adherence to the real,’ her being ‘truer to nature than a veritable narrative of actual events … [her work was] healthy and vigorous,'” they did not equate this with art: “Enthusiasm for the lifelikeness of Alcott’s work had its dangers; it could readily lead to dismissal of her writing as artless, a mere transcription of reality.” (pg. 33)

Why is this so? Why was it not “artistic” to represent a vibrant reality brimming with emotion? Is this still true today?

One critic from Scribners in 1871 got it right: “‘She is entitled to greater praise as an artist than has been bestowed upon her; ultimately she will be recognized as the very best painter, genre of the American domestic life in the middle classes; the very faithfulness, the aliveness–there ought to be that word–of her pictures prevents their having full justice done on them at once.'” (pg. 34)

If, as a reader, being moved to tears, laughing out loud and seething with outrage is not considered sophisticated and artistic, then count me in as unschooled, naive perhaps on what constitutes true art.

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).Isn’t art meant to challenge, to disturb, to move the heart? Doesn’t Little Women accomplish this in the guise of a simple children’s book? What do you think?

Second point: It occurred to me that to Louisa, her unusual upbringing was in fact her “normal.” What seemed mundane to her was fascinating to her readers. The only girls she knew well were her sisters, each outstanding in their own way. Her parents openly encouraged activities that most parents did not: free self expression (unless it involved anger or selfishness), cultivation of the imagination and the interior spiritual life, and independent thinking.

How I wish I could have read Little Women from the mindset of a typical girl of the 1860’s! I read it far too late, having already immersed myself in the author’s life, and I missed the book’s impact.

What was your initial reaction to Little Women when you first read it? Did you find the ideas in the book exciting, different, radical? Why did you feel that way?

Enough for now. Stay tuned for more discussion on Chapter One of The Afterlife of Little Women.

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