One of you (Julie) gifted me with a wonderful book and once I picked it up, I could not put it down. The book, geared for older children, is called Fruitlands Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan.
A lost diary
The premise of the book is based on Louisa’s diary kept at Fruitlands. This was her first diary and sadly, only a few pages survive. They were miraculously found in the wall of the Fruitlands house years ago. Gloria Whelan maintains that Bronson destroyed much of it as he had also destroyed Anna’s kept during that time.
A tale of two diaries
Whelan through the power of storytelling restores it. But, she not only restores it, she presents two diaries, one written for public consumption as was the custom in the family, and one kept secret. In the first entry of the secret diary Louisa writes, “In the first diary there will be Louy, who will try to be just what Mother and Father would wish. In the second diary there will be Louisa, just as she is.”
Knowing that privacy was in short supply in the lives of the Alcotts, I had to work a bit to accept the premise but once I did I was swept into this book.
Whelan is the writer I wish to be. She is a masterful storyteller, revealing so much through the details, dialog and actions of the characters. She fleshes out each child by comparing how they’d respond to a situation. From Louisa’s secret diary: “Lizzie is good-natured and listens patiently to all the questions that Father puts to us. Anna tries hard to give the correct answers, but sometimes when the questions are difficult she pleads a headache and slips away. I say what comes into my head and know at once it is a foolish answer. I wish I could learn to keep my silence.”
Big sis Anna
Anna normally considered the “good girl,” the counterpart to Bronson, is cast in a somewhat unflattering light. She did indeed exhibit Bronson’s ways, especially his penchant for being judgmental. She did everything she could to please him at the expense of her sisters. Typical of an older sister, she never failed to lord it over Louisa and point out her faults.
Little sis Lizzie
Lizzie is Louisa’s safe haven. Whelan presents a flesh and blood little girl that we could truly love through the gentle actions, words of encouragement and total acceptance that she offered to everyone. In her public diary entry, Louisa recounts being rude to Mr. Lane (a common occurrence): Mr. Lane then talked with us upon the subject that all men are equal. I was rude and impertinent, for I asked Mr. Lane if we are all equal, why should be always be the one to tell us what to do? Even Mother was angry with my rudeness. I cried and begged Mr. Lane’s pardon.” In the private diary entry she recounts crying into her pillow and how “Lizzie crept over and put her arm around me. Anna asked, “Louy, why must you always say just what you think?”
A rich and complex child
Through these diaries, Whelan paints a detailed picture of a complex child, acutely aware of her surroundings and compelled to speak her mind despite the consequence. I found myself engulfed in her soaring imagination as she organized games with the other children, pretending to be fairies, witches and characters from Shakespeare. Often Louisa would explore her darker side through the parts she chose to play making me think of the potboilers and thrillers she’d indulge in as an adult, stories ironically that would keep the family financially afloat.
A room of one’s own
Whelan described an exquisite place outdoors that Louisa claimed as the room of her own where she could write and think: “I found a weeping willow tree. It stands close to the river, and its overhanging branches form a curtain. When I pushed the branches aside, there was a leafy tent I could craw inside and be invisible to all … The breeze gently moves the trailing branches this way and that, so that first one part of the land is visible, and then another. It is as if pages in a book of pictures are being turned for me.”
The best part of this book was the “slow burn:” the building desperation, not only of how the extended family would survive but Louisa’s own desperation with herself and all the criticism she took from the adults. I could feel the weight of the oppression on her as she was undermined again and again by her father and Charles Lane. Whelan creates a keen sense of claustrophobia not only physically with the dwindling supplies and the fierce winter closing in, but psychologically as the community shrinks in membership and slowly breaks down into chaos.
Public and private
There were times when the choice of language and the conclusions drawn by Louisa seemed too mature for a girl of 10, despite her “old soul,” but in most cases, the diary entries rang with Louisa’s voice. What truly propelled the book was the ploy of first featuring Louisa’s entry for the masses followed by the entry from her heart. I couldn’t wait to read further and find out her take on the story.
The greatest complement I could pay this book? It ended far too soon. I’m reading it again. Thanks, Julie!
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