Many fans of Little Women are not aware of the fact that Louisa May Alcott, a bestselling children’s author, also served her country during the Civil War as a nurse. Because of her experience in taking care of her dying sister Lizzie, Alcott was accepted as a nurse, serving in Washington, DC in the Union Hotel Hospital. A 2019 release, Louisa on the Front Lines: Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War by Samantha Seiple, details Alcott’s short but distinguished service which earned her the right to be designated as a war veteran at her grave in Sleepy Hollow in Concord. MA.
Adult or YA audience?
Although the book was an enjoyable read I had difficulty in trying to determine the audience for which the book was intended. Samantha Seiple is known as a YA author; although Louisa on the Front Lines is not designated as a YA book, it often reads as such (particularly with referring to Louisa as “Lu” which seemed overly familiar to me).
Summarizing Alcott’s background
I found the first half of this book to be dull and forgettable (part of the reason being that I know the story of the Alcotts so well). Louisa’s backstory (which is complex given her extraordinary family and their circumstances) is overly simplified to the point of bordering on erroneous. I realize that the author’s intent was to get to the “good stuff” as fast as she could and not burden the reader with too much history. And I can certainly empathize with the difficulty of trying to boil down the Alcott family story – it’s tough! So I commend her for the effort but I think this portion of the book failed to deliver.
The heart of the book
However, by chapter 6, I was rewarded. Once Seiple gets to Alcott’s Civil War nursing experience, the book sparkles with great attention to the interesting and relevant details of Alcott’s experience. Seiple captures the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital where Alcott served along with the horrendous work she had to perform. The fine writing and thorough research highlight Louisa’s courage in the face of all she had to deal with.
Up close and personal
What distinguishes Seiple’s account is her use of new and different sources which highlight important players in this story. Making use of John Matteson’s ground-breaking research (as featured in the New England Quarterly), Seiple brings John Suhre to life; he is prominently featured in Alcott’s semi-autobiographical Hospital Sketches (compiled from her letters to her family and her first commercial success).
Seiple also features the nurse in charge at the hospital, Hannah Ropes, by quoting from her papers. Later when Alcott returns home stricken with typhoid pneumonia, we learn just how ill Louisa is through her youngest sister’s May’s first hand account. Thus, one of the main strengths of Louisa on the Front Lines is Seiple’s generous use of less familiar (and excellent) primary source material which I found refreshing and informative.
Once Seiple finished with the portion dealing with Alcott’s service and her recovery, the book falls apart. After making the claim (correctly) that Louisa’s Civil War experience shaped her writing in a significant way, Seiple glosses over the history of Little Women, again oversimplifying the backstory. A chapter demonstrating that growth through an analysis of Little Women would have been welcomed.
And while the author stated that Louisa suffered from poor health for the rest of her life, Seiple didn’t follow through by taking us to the end of Louisa’s story. Since Alcott carefully documented these numerous health issues, it is puzzling that so little is covered in the book.
Still, a good read
Despite these difficulties, I recommend Louisa on the Front Lines: Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War. It’s an easy read with chapters 6-10 offering much information on Louisa’s nursing experience.
Another take on this book
I asked others who had read the book to offer their opinion; here is a review by Jill Fuller:
“A sliver of life”
I thought it was refreshing to have a biography of Louisa that wasn’t just a huge comprehensive bio, but one that focused the lens on a sliver of her life, one that was transformative for her writing career. I also thought the author, while missing some key elements of her life story, did a good job of giving an overview of her life before and after the period in D.C. (except the end, which I’ll get to in a minute). I felt readers unfamiliar with Louisa still got a really good overview of the culture in which she was living and her personality.
I felt the author’s writing style (narrative non-fiction style, rather than an academic), worked really well for this book. Because it’s technically only looking at six weeks or so of Louisa’s life, Seiple made everything much richer by describing key details, like what the hospital would have smelled like.
It’s all in the details
Finally, I really liked the contextual aspects of the narrative – chapters dedicated to John Suhre, for example, made him much more of a vivid person than he had previously been to me. Same for Hannah Ropes, Hannah Stevenson, and Dorothea Dix. I liked getting the context of a soldier’s experience in battle, descriptions of the battles where the soldiers Louisa cared for were coming from, and what life was like for women nurses at the time, including the historical background of how women nursing came to be during the Civil War. This level of contextual detail has sometimes been lacking in other LMA biographies, in my opinion. My only criticism is that I felt there could have even more. During much of the book, I felt like the author was grazing the surface of topics that she could have plumbed much further. I’m sure there is so much more to say about nursing in the 1860s and more biographical information on Ropes, Dix, etc. that was left out. I understand it’s a book about Louisa, but those contextual details are what make her life experiences come alive for us 150 years later. I think the book as a whole could have been fleshed out so much more.
Laddie and John Suhre
One of the things I didn’t understand about the book was the section about Laddie (Alcott had a romantic encounter with this Polish youth during her first trip to Europe). I think the author was trying to show a connection between Louisa’s relationship with him and the one she “had” with John Suhre, but that wasn’t tied together for the readers – it was left for us to infer. And I find it a shaky tie at best. I also thought that the author read a bit too much into Louisa’s feelings for John. While I can agree that it’s possible she harbored strong, even romantic feelings for him, I don’t agree that his example changed the way she interacted with men. There were many men in her life who had an impact on her, from Emerson to Alf Whitman. She may have loved John to the degree that she could in that short amount of time (how many of us hasn’t fallen in love with someone we’ve just met?) but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that he changed her writing. I think her overall experience at the hospital is what did that.
Finally, I thought the ending was really rushed. I kept looking for an epilogue that would summarize the author’s ideas and wrap up Louisa’s life, and that was completely missing. The first half of the book was very good, but that last half was lacking, as if she wasn’t sure how to connect the two.
You can find Louisa on the Front Lines on Amazon.
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