My first visit to Orchard House in 1963, captured on film!

first visit to Orchard House (web)

My family visited Orchard House back when I was a little girl (I’m the one with the pig tails – my brother is to my left and sister to my right). The family with us are my aunt, uncle and cousin. My uncle took hours and hours of home movies and made a short one of our family’s visit to Concord including Orchard House, Minuteman National Park and The Old Manse.

While it’s just a glimpse, I am thrilled to have this record of my first visit to Orchard House! Who would have ever guessed it would be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the Alcotts!

Have you visited Orchard House? How old were you? Have you gone back for a return visit? (I’ve gone back too many times to count!)

Click to Tweet & ShareMy first visit to Orchard House in 1963, captured on film!

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An Old-Fashioned Louisa May Alcott Thanksgiving


This ran in 2011 and captures Thanksgiving perfectly. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Originally posted on Louisa May Alcott is My Passion:

From Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag comes “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” one of many charming short stories Louisa May Alcott wrote after the success of
Little Women.

Story summary

It’s a simple story of a time long ago and far away (very early 19th century), starring a country family in New Hampshire, “poor in money, but rich in land and love …” Familiar themes but I never grow tired of them, especially when the world today is so full of uncertainty and misery.

Takes you to another time

I never was a fan of descriptive writing, wishing instead for the plot line to simply proceed. This story’s descriptions however, folded me into its time and place such that the Bassett farmhouse was a home I truly wanted to visit and live in, even for a short time:

“The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fireplace roared…

View original 434 more words

Dr. Daniel Shealy’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s fantasy stories

louisa may alcott's fairy tales and fantasy storiesI had a lovely phone conversation with Daniel Shealy who has written essays on Louisa’s pioneering efforts as a fairy tale and fantasy writer. He has edited a volume known as Louisa May Alcott’s Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories, which is a complete collection.

I asked him the following questions; the answers are paraphrased but accurately reflect what he thinks.

1. In Louisa’s time, how common it was for children to read about and pretend to be fairies and elves?

While there weren’t any strictly American stories about elves and fairies, there were European stories that made their way over written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Louisa refers to Anderson a couple of times in Little Women (and also in “The Skipping Shoes” from Lulu’s Library). Because there are no manuscripts of Louisa’s journals until the 1860s, (except for pages found at Fruitlands), we can only go by what Ednah Dow Cheney chose to reveal.

It was common for children of that time to imagine they were fairies.

2. What influence did Abigail have on Louisa with regards to stories of fairies and elves?

Again, we don’t know specifically what fantasy books Louisa read as a child (except for the reference to The Neverending Story) but Lydia Marie Child was one of Abba’s best friends and she wrote fantasy. Surely Louisa would have been exposed to that.

3. How much of a role did transcendentalism play in Louisa’s fantasy stories?

Professor Daniel Shealy lays out his case about the extensive range of Louisa May Alcott's writing.

Professor Daniel Shealy lays out his case about the extensive range of Louisa May Alcott’s writing.

Transcendentalism definitely played a role, perhaps in the way Louisa’s imagination worked. The Alcott children were greatly encouraged to read and use their imaginations. It was totally accepted in their family for the children to imagine themselves as characters (and later on this played out in their theatricals). Louisa’s Fruitlands diary makes reference to pretending to be fairies while at Fruitlands.
5. Did the weaving in of the natural world make her fantasy stories unique? 

The detail of description and the naming of the flowers and plants perhaps made it unique. Daniel described Louisa as a pioneer. She didn’t invent the genre of fantasy tales in America but she was one of the first to produce a book of American fairy tales.

Brief overview of children’s literature

Dr. Shealy’s essay furthers the argument. Tracing the history of children’s literature in America, he notes the total lack of books which stimulated the imagination of the child before the 1850s (recalling that Flower Fables was published in 1855). Puritan society frowned on fiction as “lies,” believing that realistic, didactic stories were best. Works such as The New England Primer, John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Babes and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were commonly found in the home.

Impact of Pilgrim’s Progress

pilgrim's progressBronson Alcott counted Bunyan’s book as his all-time favorite and made sure his daughters were equally immersed in it. Results of that immersion are clearly seen in Little Women, right down to the chapter titles (“Jo Meets Apollyon,” Meg Goes to Vanity Fare,” “Castles in the Air,” etc.).

Old World influence

Interest in the growth of children’s literature began to emerge in the 1820s as America sought to better educate their young whom they saw as the future of the nation. Books were still didactic but were more informative in nature. Yet, fantasy literature was beginning to seep in. It had to come over from Europe.

Feeding the New World imagination

mother gooseMother Goose, tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson’s stories became great favorites, soon prompting the writing of American tales. Old habits die hard, thus the heavy emphasis on morals and education permeated these stories. Samuel Goodrich, who published Parley’s Book of Fables in 1836, condemned the European fairy tales, calling them “monstrosities.”

What did Louisa read?

Louisa was most likely exposed to fantasy through Lydia Maria Child, one of her mother’s dearest friends. She produced Rainbows for Children in 1848, keeping in line with the moral and educational emphases. Louisa would have been in her teens at the time. There is evidence of exposure to European tales as well with mentions of Hans Christian Anderson in some of her juvenile works.

Beginning of a new tradition

Wonder-Book-for-Girls-Boys-by-HawthorneMost scholars agree that Nathaniel Hawthorne (who ironically ended up purchasing the Alcott homestead of Hillside in Concord where Louisa lived as a teenager) officially began the tradition of American fairy tales with his two works, A Wonder Book in 1851 and Tanglewood Tales in 1853. Louisa would publish Flower Fables one year later.

The writing of the era

Having grown up in the era of moral fiction and being an avid reader (especially of Charles Dickens), Louisa’s stories reflected her influences. Home schooled by her transcendentalist father whose instruction and philosophy stressed morality, Louisa sought to work out her salvation, so to speak, and earn her father’s approval which was hard to come by in her early years. The deep impression made by those experiences is felt in her juvenile works and fantasy tales.

Parallel tales

Lydia Maria Childs

Lydia Maria Childs

Dr. Shealy points out a clear parallel between the stories in Flower Fables and the work of Lydia Maria Child. In 1844, Child published the first volume of Flowers for Children which included a story titled “The Indolent Fairy.” In the story, Papillon the fairy, not known for her hard work or patience, is ordered by the fairy queen to remain in a cavern until work was completed on “a purer and more brilliant diamond than had ever rested on the brow of moral or fairy.” Papillon learns to appreciate work and enjoy the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Shealy writes, “The use of nature and the emphasis on reform clearly parallel Alcott’s own work. In fact, it is quite possible that Alcott herself had read this tale since her journal indicates her familiarity with Child’s work …”

From voice to paper

512 louisa and thoreau in the woods

illustration by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Flower Fables grew out of an oral tradition. In 1848 while living at Hillside, Louisa taught the neighborhood children including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter Ellen who was so enthralled that she regularly demanded more stories. Shealy writes, “Influenced by her woodland walks with her friend and neighbor Henry David Thoreau, her visits to his cabin at Walden Pond, and her readings in books such as The Story Without an End, Alcott fashioned a fairy world of her own.”

Handmade volumes

Louisa wrote down those stories creating two handmade books, “The Frost King” (the first story in Flower Fables) and “The Fairy Dell.” Shealy describes a green notebook for the former and a manuscript covered with gray marbled paper and bound together with pink ribbon for the latter. Both of these volumes are available for viewing at The Concord Free Public Library in their Special Collections room. In a previous post I wrote, “It was all neatly handwritten by the teenaged Louisa on unlined paper, each line perfectly straight and perfectly spaced. And it was signed “Louy.” Occasionally there was a small edit (a scratched out word). She had hand bound the stories in a pretty folder …”

Community effort

ralph waldo emersonFlower Fables came to print through the help of family and friends. Bronson recorded in his journal in November of 1854, “Today see Briggs, the publisher concerning Louisa’s book Flower Fables which she is printing as a child’s Christmas gift.” Shealy notes that Madeleine Stern suggests that Emerson, through a connection with the publisher’s relative, interceded on Louisa’s behalf. A Miss Wealthy Stevens paid for the book; Louisa had done sewing for her in 1852.

To the most important person of all

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Louisa dedicated the book to Ellen Emerson, writing: “Hoping that age has not lessened your love for the Fairy folk I have ventured to place your name in my little book …” Louisa was not happy with the illustrations, continuing, “I hope if the fairies tell me any more stories, they will let an Elfin artist illustrate them.”

Where to find out more

Shealy has much more to say about Flower Fables and you can read about it by purchasing his essay from Book Rags or by ordering Louisa May Alcott’s Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories on Amazon; he edited the book and wrote the preface.

Louisa’s fantasy tales are an important part of her canon, revealing a rich imagination. Despite illness and work demands (and demands she placed on herself), she never lost site of the child within her.

Click to Tweet & ShareDr. Daniel Shealy’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s fantasy stories

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Sowing Wild Oats, the Transcendental Kind. Serious humor. Guest post by Aniko Eva

transcendental-wild-oats-louisa-alcott-paperback-cover-artAniko Eva, a contributor to Open Salon, was kind enough to reblog my previous post on the unknown members of the Fruitlands community. I, in turn, am happy to reblog her excellent post on Transcendental Wild Oats, Louisa’s satirical response to her experience at Fruitlands.

sairey gamp in front of houseSometimes the only thing you can do in the midst of chaos and despair is to laugh. Louisa’s keen sense of humor served her well throughout her life, oftentimes making her the center of attention at the informal and regular open houses held at Orchard House. Llewellyn Frederick Willis, in his  memoir recalls fondly the rollicking stories she would tell (see previous post).

Louisa loved taking on characters such as Sairey Gamp from the Charles Dickens book Martin Chuzzlewit and entertained the soldiers she cared for during her stint as a Civil War nurse.

Again, another time when all you could do sometimes is just laugh.

I invite you to read this wonderful account of Transcendental Wild Oats.

book space holder

I didn’t expect to call it hilarious when I picked this book up,  that but it’s true:  Louisa May Alcott’s short satirical ribbing of her father’s ‘commune’, Transcendental Wild Oats, is hilarious. All those times you read books with a humorous hippie holdover from the ’70s or watched Dharma’s parents clash with Greg’s, you probably never knew that poor Louisa went through the experience first and for real.

And, while there are probably many ways one could approach this work, one thing that flies off the page when reading this story is the oppressive patriarchal dynamic that existed and, unfortunately, too often still exists. I’d suggest we not be too sensitive about the idea that stubborn male brains have often caused family pain. We all know some people lord their power over others in their circles; the Y-chromosome has just historically made it easier for some members of the human race to do this. Beware: many times it comes from good and honorable intentions. It just doesn’t work, and a husband-wife checks-and-balances system, had it been in place, may have. Even, if it only happens rarely, it hurts when it does. Most of us have some sort of experience with it.

And that’s what hit me when reading this surprisingly funny, sharp, readable story and the supporting material in Transcendental Wild Oats and Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary, published by the Harvard Common Press.

Click to finish the article.

Click to Tweet & ShareSowing Wild Oats, the Transcendental Kind. Serious humor. Guest post by Aniko Eva

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I took some pictures of my cats this morning and got some crazy results! It was begging for a story so I tried my hand at it. I left the ending open on purpose to see what you could come up with :-) I wonder how Louisa would end this story???

Originally posted on Be As One:

What happens when technology leaves you with an unexpected gift? You grab it and go!

This morning my two cats, Jenny and Rameses, started playing with toys that my mother-in-law had put in our Christmas stocking for them. Tootsie’s toys never fail to please! I watched as they inspected the toys, taking pictures with my phone.

The pictures produced some shocking results and were such fun that I thought I’d craft a story around them. Here goes:

Santa had left an extra gift.

The tree stripped of its sparkling lights and sentimental ornaments had been dragged out onto the snow-covered deck to shelter the birds. In its wake were left a trail of prickly green needles and a single, unopened package, topped with a silky red bow and a note stamped with a paw print reading, “Love from Santa, Rudolph and the gang.”

Filled with a variety of plush and…

View original 423 more words

Louisa has primed my pump and changed my life

I happened to stumble upon a great find: The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, an historical novel featuring Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. It covers the Civil War through the eyes of a fictitious Alcott cousin, Susan Gray, who comes to live with the Alcotts after being orphaned. Susan becomes Louisa’s constant companion, confidant and critic. Together they volunteer to serve as nurses in the Civil War where they meet Clara Barton; eventually Susan will work with Clara to continue her service in a most extraordinary way.

A life-changing book

Everyone has read books that have changed their life in some way. The Glory Cloak is one of those that I can count as life-changing. It was the right book to read at this time in my life. Besides giving me a new interpretation of Louisa’s life through the main character, Susan Gray, it also showed me plainly what it takes to write a good historical novel.

Personal history

It has taken me all of my life (56 years) to admit that I am a writer. Writing has lain dormant in me for so many of those years. As a child I read voraciously and wrote little books. I found my first biography of Louisa in The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard and read it so many times that the book is tattered and worn.

Turning away …

Discouragement from a 7th grade English teacher plus adolescence plus a new passion for the guitar steered me away from reading and writing for most of my life (with the exception of songwriting). Every five years or so I would tackle a new biography about Louisa, lose myself in it, and then move on. That’s all the reading I did. Until now.

Coming upon the second anniversary of my mother’s death (April 22), I have been lately reflecting on how much reading and writing about Louisa has meant to me. When my mother died, a large part of me went with her. My passion for music which had been dying anyway, was gone.

… and coming home

Adrift after several years of helping to care for my mother, I came upon two books that my husband had bought for me several months earlier. He knew of my love for Louisa. Those two books were The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.

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

Reisen’s book led me to Hospital Sketches, the first book of Louisa’s that I had ever read. The chapter known as “A Night” where she wrote so poignantly of the death of John the Virginian blacksmith, was a like a balm on my grief. Louisa wrote with such understanding about death, both emotionally and spiritually. After all, she was still grieving the loss of her sister, Lizzie, and her long-time friend, Henry David Thoreau. Her grief spoke to me.

Stoking the fire

It was then that I decided I wanted an outlet for all that I was feeling about Louisa and her writing, and this blog was born. Each day as I read, wrote and immersed myself deeper into her life, her work and her contemporaries, I discovered a fire that I thought had long ago been extinguished. Every now and then I would feel a wind under me, lifting me up as I would write. Research and taking notes became a passionate endeavor. That “lifting up” became more and more frequent such that now I long for those Saturday and Sunday mornings when I can at last lay aside work and family, hole up in my sacred space, and write.

A mission

I began to develop theories about Louisa. One in particular, her relationship with her younger sister Lizzie, has become a mission. Lizzie, the “shadow sister” often overlooked and dismissed. How many times have I heard that “no one would ever want to be  Beth!” Yet there are many, many Beths in this world and I believe I am one of them. When I see historical fiction about Louisa where Lizzie is referred to as “Beth”, I know the writer is dismissing her. Beth was Louisa’s glorification of Lizzie but she was not a real flesh-and-blood person; Lizzie was. I feel called to be a voice for Lizzie.

Not for the fainthearted!

The Glory Cloak has shown me a way to achieve this purpose. It first has taught me that you cannot call yourself a writer if you are fainthearted. It may seem like writing is a “safe” thing to do – after all, you are all by yourself, lost inside of your own world that no one else can enter … what’s risky about that?

Giving voice

Patricia O’Brien has taught me otherwise, showing me that provocative theories can be floated if they are backed up by a well-developed, gripping story. Characters like Lizzie, despite the lack of hard facts, can be fleshed out. Any character can have a voice.


O’Brien has shown me the tools she used to dig deeper, expanding and setting free, her imagination. I only know the generalities now and will need to work hard to get to the particulars, but The Glory Cloak assures me that it can be done.

Perched for a flying leap


Historical fiction requires risk-taking with fan fiction being especially risky. How many millions of Little Women fans are out there? And how many of those fans have dug as deeply as I have, obsessed with the life of the author? I met about fifty of those types of fans in Concord several weeks ago at the Little Women panel discussion I attended. I felt right at home and very intimidated, all at the same time. It was exhilarating. It strengthened my resolve with regards to my own little mission.

Oil for the engine

The wonderful thing about writing is that all it takes to get the engine started again is a good book. Between work, Lent and Easter, I totally fell out of my writing routine. I’m so thankful I found a book as compelling as The Glory Cloak. It swept me away and in some ways, left me feeling sad. But it was the oil that primed this engine that was surely sputtering!

Getting into the book

In the next post I will get into more particulars about the book, and in the final post, I will get into the theories which O’Brien explored. Thanks to those theories, I see Louisa through a new lens, only adding to the richness of her life.

Thank you

Thank you for indulging me! One of the things I’ve failed to mention is how much is has meant for me to enjoy such great company on this journey. Through this blog I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of you, whether it be in person, on the phone or by email, Twitter and/or your own blogs and books. I feel privileged to be a part of such a special community. The writers, teachers, students of all ages and fans I have met have been most generous. You are a bighearted and welcoming group!

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Interested in 19th century fashion reform? Here’s some references.

Following up some more on chapter 5 of Eight Cousins (A Belt and a Box), another member of the Louisa May Alcott Society, Melissa M. Pennell, Ph.D., Professor of English, UMass Lowell, Lowell, MA provided some texts from the 19th and 20th centuries (including two by Bronson Alcott’s cousin, Dr. William Alcott)  if you wanted to read more. Several of these books are available on Amazon and/or Google Books:

Some 19th Century Texts

  • Alcott, William A.  Tightlacing (Health Tracts No. 9) Boston, 1841.

    Dr. William Alcott was the cousin of Bronson Alcott. He was passionate about education as a boy which greatly influenced Bronson.

  • Alcott, William A.  The Young Woman’s Book of Health.  Boston, 1850.
  • Dietrick, E.B. “Male and female attire in various nations and ages; a defense of dress reform,” Arena 10 (August 1894): 353-65
  • Fowler, Orson Squire.  “The evils of tightlacing” in his Phrenology and Physiology Explained and Applied to Matrimony.  New York, 1842.
  • Livermore, Mary Ashton Rice.  What Shall We Do with our Daughters and other lectures.  Boston, 1883.
  • Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart.  What to Wear? Boston: 1873.
  • Russell, F.E.  “American Dress-Reform Movements of the Past, with a view of representative women.” Arena 6 (August 1892):325-39.

20th Century texts:

My thanks to Dr. Pennell who, in the midst of grading mid-terms, generously gave of her time.

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