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Summer Conversational Series 2017 at Orchard House wrap-up

As promised, here is a summary of the Summer Conversational Series presented between July 16 and the 20th. The theme this year is “‘Noble Companions and Immortable Labors'” the Alcotts, Thoreaus, and the Quest for Social Justice.”

Lis Adams, Education Director of Orchard House

I was only able to attend two sessions, on Tuesday and Wednesday. At the end of this post is a link to my notes from the presentations. Unfortunately my evil tablet did not properly save my notes from Wednesday so I only have notes from the first presentation of that day. I tried to summarize the other two and provided links for further information.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Orchard House, could not be with us this year as she is in Ireland acting as consultant to the new BBC Little Women series. Education Director Lis Adams did a wonderful job of running the series and introduced the speakers.

On Tuesday the presentations included:

Dr. Cathlin Davis

Cathlin Davis “From Story to Action: Social Justice in Louisa May Alcott’s Fiction”
Dr. Davis is the leading expert on Louisa’s juvenile tales. She led us through a series of stories that outlined Louisa’s approach to social justice, an approach which is just as timely today as illustrated through an organization she highlighted, The Heifer Project.

Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters

Gabrielle Donnelly “Bread, Roses, and One-Liners:
Jokes and Feminism from Louisa May Alcott to Tina Fey”

Ms. Donnelly’s presentation was thought-provoking as well as humerous as she linked together feminism and humor (just as Louisa did; she cited an example of Jo March in Little Women). What made the presentation particularly interesting was the fact that one of the attendees is a standup comedienne who performed for many years in Las Vegas with headlines such as Wayne Newton. She provided many colorful stories.

Gabrielle based on her presentation on a song called “Bread and Roses” (she asked me to sing the song and I gladly complied). Here is a video of the song from the movie, “Pride:”

Jane Sciacca and Michelle Blees

Michelle Blees and Jane Sciacca “The Alcotts at Hillside: Their Beliefs and Actions”
Michelle and Jane are tour guides for the Minuteman National Park Service at The Wayside (known as Hillside when the Alcotts lived there). They gave a fascinating account of the history of The Wayside with its storied authors, and its link to the National Underground Railroad. These are photos of the displays — just click on the thumbnail to see the larger photo.

On Wednesday the presentations included:

Jason Giannetti

Jason Giannetti “Concord’s Transcendental Conscientious Objector”
Mr. Gianetti discussed the activism of famous Transcendentalists such as Henry David  Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. He called on us to be today’s Transcendental Conscientious Objectors which sparked a lengthy, spirited conversation which Bronson would have approved of wholeheartedly.

NOTE: the following two presentations are the ones where my notes were sadly lost. I did include a summary in the notes available at the end of this post.

Dr. Kristina West

Kristina West “Growing Tomorrow: A Transcendental Education”
Dr.  West hails from London and lives right across the way from the original location of Alcott House in Ham. She described the teaching techniques of Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott which so endeared them to children. She then highlighted Louisa’s contribution.

Jennifer Schünemann “Save the Mother, Save the Child:
The Pandemic Exploitation of Women and Its Effect on the World.”

Jennifer Schünemann of Durga Tree International

Ms. Schünemann heads the New England chapter of Durga Tree International, an organization working tirelessly to help victims of human trafficking. This presentation was quite sobering but Ms. Schünemann was able to provide hope and answers beginning with how we behave as consumers, making sure we are more conscious of who actually makes our products and how they are treated. My notes contain website information so you can find out more and even become involved. This is a program I would highly recommend.

Here are my notes from the series that you can download. Summer Conversational Series 2017 Tuesday

As always, such a joy to attend! I’ve made many wonderful friends through this series and agree wholeheartedly that each year it is like going to summer camp!

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What would you like to know about the woman behind Beth March?

I need your help.

I am writing my book proposal for the biography on Elizabeth Alcott and I need more input from you as a fan of Little Women. Here are a few short questions — if you could comment below with your answers, that would really help. And thank you!

  1. What would you most like to know about Elizabeth and why?
  2. What do you know already about her?
  3. Who is your favorite March sister is and why? If Beth is not your favorite, why?
  4. Do you think Beth is a relevant character for modern readers and why or why not? What would make her more “real” to you?

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Rambling about “Little Women”

My commute to work is one hour or more each way so I have to do something to entertain myself. I tend to have what I call “brain dumps” while driving and when I do, I whip out my phone and turn on the Dragon app. Then I dictate what I’m thinking. A good portion of my writing is done in this fashion.

Today I had such a “brain dump” so I thought I’d share it with you. I’ve been enjoying the Much Ado about Little Women blog and realized I’d love to write more often about what I think about Little Women.

So here goes!

Thoughts on Chapter 42, “Alone”

I have written before about this, my favorite chapter.. The most nuanced and grown-up chapter in the book, it shows Jo’s willingness to allow grief to reshape her. Consumed with honoring her dead sister Jo was determined to follow to the letter of the law Beth’s exhortation on taking care of the family by renouncing her writing ambition. Marmee’s wisdom however led Jo to understand why she found this so difficult to do—it simply wasn’t in her makeup to do what Beth had instructed. She could not be Beth and needed to find her own way to care for the family while remaining true to herself.

Choice of husbands

Part of remaining true to herself was to reject Laurie as a potential husband. In our love for Laurie we forget that he was not entirely supportive of Jo’s writing. Professor Bhaer, however, was. In fact, it was Jo’s poem about the four chests in the attic that touched his heart. He disapproved of Jo’s blood and thunder stories because he thought she was capable of better and inevitably, he was proven correct.

A new life

In allowing the creative process of grief to shape her future, Jo was able to realize a life that to her was very satisfying (even if some readers disagree). She could expand her world to help others, especially the boys she loved so dearly. She was able to start her own family. And in time, with acquired wisdom, she was able to write as she had desired.

This is why Little Women is such a satisfying read for me. Even though she resisted the idea of making Jo a married woman I think Louisa still revealed desires for herself through Jo. While I have yet to read Jo’s Boys, at least through Little Women and Little Men, Jo was free in a way that Louisa it was not. Jo did not impose the chains of duty upon herself as Louisa did.

Was it fair that Amy won the trip to Europe?

On another front, with regards to Amy getting the trip to Europe—I believe Amy deserved that trip. Unlike Jo who rendered her service to Aunt March in a begrudging way, complaining to her sisters about her aunt and clearly not enjoying her company, Amy in fact did enjoy being with Aunt March. That made Amy tmore agreeable companion. Jo felt entitled to that trip and that was wrong. While at first it appears unjust because of Jo’s service, it was the way that service was rendered that caused Amy to be chosen. There is something to be said about that verse from scripture, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Lucky or gifted?

Like May, Amy was not just “lucky.” Calling her sister “lucky” betrayed Louisa’s/Jo’s resentment towards her sister’s natural ability to get along with others. Louisa/Jo had a lot of difficulty with casual niceties and small talk and people were put off by that. She couldn’t help being the way she was but to resent May/Amy because of her natural ability was unfair.

Who is the shy one?

Beth is often characterized as timid and shy but in many ways Jo was shy as well. Both sisters felt unworthy and in need of improvement, even redemption. Yet while Beth retreated from life, Jo pursued a better course, doing battle with her life like a warrior, determined to prove she was worthy. Beth died, and Jo lived.

What do you think?

Share your ramblings!

 

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Summer Reading Recommendation: The Courtship of Jo March

Trix Wilkins of the Much Ado about Little Women blog (an excellent blog, by the way, all about Little Women) has written a most intriguing re-imagining of Little Women with different endings for characters. In her description of the book she writes,

Set in the early 1870s, this re-imagining of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is for all who have ever wondered how things might have worked out differently for the beloved March sisters – the life Beth might have led, the books Jo might have written, the friends they might have made, and the courtship that might have been…

Authoress Jo March has lost her elder sister Meg to matrimony. When the aristocratic Vaughns – elegant Kate, boisterous Fred, thoughtful Frank, and feisty Grace – re-enter their lives, it seems her younger sisters Beth and Amy, and even her closest friend Laurie, might soon follow suit.

Yet despite the efforts of her great-aunt March, Jo is determined not to give up her liberty for any mortal man. What else is a writer to do but secure music lessons for her dearest sister, and befriend aspirant journalist Tommy Chamberlain?

The Marches’ neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence was born with looks, talent, and wealth – and Jo is convinced he has a promising future in which she has no part. He is as stubborn as Jo, and has loved her for as long as anyone can remember. But what will win a woman who won’t marry for love or money?

Wilkins is offering a sample thirty pages of the book free which you can order here. In reading those pages I was immediately caught up in the story. Wilkins does a fine job of imitating the voice of Louisa May Alcott; the characters feel true to their origins. Already in those thirty pages I saw clever ideas and insights into characters that made me want to read more. I will purchase the paperback version sometime this summer and then write a review. This is a perfect summer read, especially for those of us who can’t get enough of Little Women!

Here is all the purchasing information you will need for The Courtship of Jo March. Wilkins is giving away a special package with each book, both the e-book and the paperback.

And in the meantime, be sure and visit her blog, Much Ado about Little Women.

And speaking of blogs …

Tarissa’s In the Bookcase blog is running her annual June Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. Be sure and visit her site — it’s easy and fun to participate. If I can get out from under with my current non-Alcott reading before the end of the month, I’ll chime in too!

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Coming attractions – watch for a new novel on May Alcott coming out in September

Look what I got in the mail the other day:

This is an advance copy of Elise Hooper’s first book, The Other Alcott, published by Harper Collins in which she imagines May Alcott’s life beginning in 1868. Elise gave a wonderful talk last summer at the Summer Conversational Series on May’s life as an artist. You can listen to an interview I did with her here.

I am looking forward to this read (and so far it reads well). The book debuts this September and is available on Amazon for pre-order.

Here is the write-up on Amazon:

Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.

Stylish, outgoing, creative, May Alcott grows up longing to experience the wide world beyond Concord, Massachusetts. While her sister Louisa crafts stories, May herself is a talented and dedicated artist, taking lessons in Boston, turning down a marriage proposal from a well-off suitor, and facing scorn for entering what is very much a man’s profession.

Life for the Alcott family has never been easy, so when Louisa’s Little Women is published, its success eases the financial burdens they’d faced for so many years. Everyone agrees the novel is charming, but May is struck to the core by the portrayal of selfish, spoiled “Amy March.” Is this what her beloved sister really thinks of her?

So May embarks on a quest to discover her own true identity, as an artist and a woman. From Boston to Rome, London, and Paris, this brave, talented, and determined woman forges an amazing life of her own, making her so much more than merely “The Other Alcott.”

“Elise Hooper’s thoroughly modern debut gives a fresh take on one of literature’s most beloved families. To read this book is to understand why the women behind Little Women continue to cast a long shadow on our imaginations and dreams. Hooper is a writer to watch!”—Elisabeth Egan, author of A Window Opens

You can find out more by visiting www.elisehooper.com

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Rare inside look at Louisa May Alcott’s edits on the frontispiece illustration for part 2 of Little Women

From the Firestone Library of Princeton University comes this fascinating and brief look inside the process of putting together the Second Part of Little Women for initial publication.

This article shows the original frontispiece illustrated by Hammatt Billings (showing Amy and Laurie in Europe) and Louisa’s comments scribbled in the margins. Then we get to see the final piece which ending up pleasing Alcott greatly.

Alcott also shares in a letter to a friend just how strongly she felt about Billings’ efforts.

This is a must see — click on the title:

Alcott to Billings: Oh, Please change em!

 

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“Poppy’s Pranks” reveals the childhood of Louisa May Alcott

I am listening for a second time to Harriet Reisen’s fine biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women. In discussing Louisa’s childhood Reisen makes many references to a story Louisa wrote for her first children’s series, Morning-Glories and Other Stories. Having little experience with writing children’s stories, Louisa opted to learn by doing, thus preparing her for the job as editor of the children’s magazine, “Merry’s Museum.” As Madeline B. Stern put it, “Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at Orchard House.” (Louisa May Alcott, A Biography, pg. 163).

This of course begins to set the stage for Alcott’s greatest triumph, Little Women. But back to Louisa’s own childhood …

The story which Reisen refers to is “Poppy’s Pranks.” Both Reisen and Stern note that Poppy’s experiences are Louisa’s.

Of Poppy Louisa writes that she was not necessarily a willful child “but very thoughtless and very curious. She wanted to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere: she feared nothing, and so was continually getting into scrapes.” After reading this story it is a wonder that Louisa’s mother Abba didn’t go completely gray with worry over her little hoiden; Poppy’s escapes are hair-raising!

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

From hanging out a third-story window with her head upside down, to jumping off of the highest beam in the barn at the dare of a friend (and spraining both ankles), to rubbing peppers in her eyes and eating tobacco only to be brought home deathly ill in a wheelbarrow … Poppy’s pranks were legendary. The prank that really got me came as a result of Poppy wishing to imitate country girls by going barefoot. Despite her mother forbidding her to do so, Poppy took off her shoes and proceeded to pierce her foot with a pitchfork. Ouch! Fearful that she would develop lock jaw, a potentially fatal outcome of her accident (suggested to her by her friend Cy), Poppy in dramatic style, prepares for death by bequeathing all her belongings. She is a bit disappointed when she fully recovers. She truly did want to experience everything!

Louisa mixes fact and fiction so skillfully that I am never totally sure what is true. It doesn’t matter. It’s obvious that she was Poppy and must have been a force to contend with in a household where peace was supposed to reign supreme. That force would evolve into the amazing quantity, quality and variety of her writing over her adult life.

We as readers are very fortunate that “Poppy” put her enormous life force to such good use.

You can download Morning-Glories and Other Stories from archive.org — just click on the title. “Poppy’s Pranks” are on page 89.

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