Introducing “From the Garret”

This blog has certainly been a journey! When I first started, all I wanted to do was share my love of Louisa with other fans. I never thought I would grow to love reading and writing as much as I do. It’s been a creative renaissance!

Different writers’ blogs that I follow (Jeff Goins, Michael Hyatt, Jeannine Atkins) suggest that sharing what you write with others is an excellent way to grow as a writer. So I am taking the plunge with a new page on this site,From the Garret.

Free, downloadable PDF files

The pieces featured From the Garret are longer pieces longer than the typical blog post format. They are available to you for free in PDF format. All stories and essays are free to Simply click on the title of the story or essay to download. Not all writing will directly relate to Louisa May Alcott but all work is certainly inspired by her.

Your comments are welcome

Each story or essay will be presented as a blog post so that you can leave comments. All stories will be archived on the From the Garret page. Feedback, positive or negative, is appreciated (so long as it’s polite and constructive).

Citation of work

You can also cite my work, just please give full credit to the work (Title, author, date published) and contact me to let me know. The ego boost is nice! 😉

Your original work will also be welcome

I will also feature stories, poems and essays from Louisa May Alcott is My Passion readers. Write to me to find out how your story can be considered for publication on this blog. Stories must relate to the subject matter of the blog or be inspired by Louisa May Alcott to be considered. Every so often I will issue a challenge for writing. Let’s share the wealth!

Here is my first essay, based upon The Glory Cloak which I have posted on before. Click on the title to download the file.

Game Changer How One Book Changed My Perspective on History

Based on a reading of The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien
Submitted on June 26, 2012
Author: Susan Bailey
Format: Essay
Download PDF file

Can’t download the PDF? Write to Susan at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com to have one sent to you.

Have you ever read a book that transformed your way of thinking? Did it teach you to probe, question and read between the lines? In this essay, I write about such a book, The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, and how this historical fiction novel of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton changed forever the way I view historical facts and how I read Little Women and other such quasi-autobiographical accounts by Alcott.

Happy reading! What did you think?

Click to Tweet and shareSusan Bailey of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Blog has released an ebook, “Game Changer” – get it free! http://wp.me/p125Rp-10i

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

Another Little Women back story – How did the March family lose their fortune?

In the last post, I shared Geraldine Brooks’ imagined back story on Marmee’s temper and how her husband helped her to control it.

Now from March I’d like to share Brooks’ version of how the March family lost their fortune. She creates a very plausible scenario with an historical figure, one that captivated much of Concord (the Alcotts among them) with his zeal for abolishing slavery.

His name? John Brown.

John Brown

John  Brown is infamous for the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry where he sought to ignite an armed revolt by the slaves by seizing  a United States Arsenal (from Wikipedia). He had no qualms about the use of violence to bring about his means, even if it meant the sacrifice of his sons.

Attraction

March appreciated Brown’s commitment but was put off by his violent methods. However, Marmee was very taken with him. March noted the animated way Marmee conversed with Brown, observing that  “I could see that Brown ignited the very part of my wife’s spirit I wished to quench: the lawless, gypsy elements of her nature.”

Winning his wife’s esteem

Marmee admired Brown as an heroic figure and March felt a stab of jealousy: “I want her to see me that way.” It was then that March decided to, in a sense, buy his wife’s esteem by funding Brown.

Questionable judgment

Brown had a sorted past financially, dogged by debt and law suits. Yet while he was fiery and off-putting in his public zeal, in private he was a very different man: humble and diffident. He won over March in private just as he had won over Marmee in public.

Foolishness leads to disaster

March is astonishingly naive, never realizing he should have been more careful. Determining that his past investments had supported the institution of slavery, he gives Brown whatever he asks for.

In the end, using up all the family money, March inadvertently supports the raid on Harper’s Ferry (along with Quaker donors who also vigorously opposed violence). Quite a price to pay for the purchase of his wife’s approval.

Regret

March must confront Marmee and share with her their now desperate plight. Always pragmatic, Marmee questions her husband’s judgment: “But must it have been our entire capital?” March’s answer is that he had to commit all since Brown risked his very life for his beliefs.

Marmee was not the only one who had been seduced by John Brown.

In the end Brown was tried for treason and hung.

Consequences

March did not seek to build a new fortune as he was not the peddlar of his youth. He determined that his wealth had been obtained through less than high-minded means and he would not make that mistake again.

No help was to come from Aunt March who had inherited a great fortune from her husband. She added insult to injury by offering to “adopt” Meg. This truly set off Marmee’s temper which March sought to control. She rails at him:

“You stifle me! You crush me! You preach emancipation, and yet you enslave me, in the most fundamental way. Am I not to have the freedom to express myself, in my own home? In the face of such insult? You call our girls your ‘little women’; well, I am your belittled woman, and I am tired of it. Tired of suppressing my true feelings, tired of schooling my heart to order, as if I were some errant pupil and you the schoolmaster. I will not be degraded in this way.”

“It is you,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, though my pulse beat in my head. “It is you who degrade yourself, when you forgo self-mastery.”

Even the enlightened March must lord over his wife. Never mind that he, like Bronson, failed to provide for her.

What do you think of Geraldine Brooks’ scenario for the loss of the March family fortune?

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Adding back story to Little Women

I couldn’t leaveMarch by Geraldine Brooks behind without mentioning one other element of the book that I really enjoyed – the back stories Brooks imagined which enhance Little Women.

Haven’t you often wondered just how the March family lost their fortune? Haven’t you wanted to know more about Marmee’s temper and how her husband helped her control it? Brooks offers interesting scenarios.

Marmee’s temper

Addressing the latter first, we are all familiar with the heart-to-heart talk Marmee had with Jo about their respective tempers. In chapter 8, “Jo Meets Apollyon,” Amy is nearly killed because Jo could not subdue her temper. She feels deep remorse at her hesitation to save Amy from drowning after falling through the ice.

Seeking out her mother, Jo tearfully confesses and is astonished to hear Marmee say, “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

She goes on to say that through the the love and patience of her husband, she learned to control her anger. In March, her husband says, “I tried to teach her something about her new place, giving her to understand, with gentle hints and loving guidance, that what might be considered lapses born of high spirits in a young maiden were in no way proper in one who was now a mother and a wife.”

Brooks fills in the blanks

Brooks describes Marmee’s passionate anger, expressed by fiery eyes and cutting tongue, as often being brought on by the discussion of slavery and abolition. Here Brooks draws upon Abba Alcott’s story, painting Marmee as a committed reformer.

Stepping on toes in public

In one scene, Marmee lashes out at Mr. Emerson, chastising him for his lukewarm talk about abolition and urging him to take a stronger stand. Being an active part of the Underground Railroad, she is convinced of the righteousness of her cause and has no qualms attacking someone publicly if they do not live up to her expectations.

Signals

In another instance, she stands up to Aunt March after the old woman comments that “slavery is more a matter of prayer than protest. Preferably, silent prayer.”

Marmee’s anger cuts like a knife and March gives her the agreed-upon signal – an index finger placed upon his lips – to remind her to restrain herself. When the atmosphere fails to improve, he sweeps her away from the scene, determined that she will “walk off” her anger.

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

An example of serenity

March is concerned about the example Marmee is setting, especially with second daughter Jo who shows the same propensity for passion. Marmee does not wish to reign in Jo’s spirit, claiming it will be crushed soon enough, but March insists that she teach Jo to restrain herself. Just like Bronson, March favors serenity and insists his wife and daughters practice it.

In the next post, I will describe the back story that Brooks lays out which describes how the March family lost their fortune.

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Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

It feels like a lifetime since I started reading March by Geraldine Brooks a little over a month ago. Between this work and The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, my way of thinking has gone through a transformation. Fortunate, because otherwise, I never could have appreciated March.

Opening the mind

Historical fiction has proven to be a game-changer, slowing opening my mind like a can opener struggling over a can of tuna fish. My black and white approach to the world is changing as I learn how to embrace the shades of gray that life often is.

It takes a lot more courage to live in a gray-shaded world. March has shown me that.

Not for the faint of heart

As stated in a previous post, Geraldine Brooks’ writing is aggressive: poking, prodding and shaking the reader out of complacency. March is not a leisurely spring read.

The book opens with a letter March is writing to Marmee and the girls, taken from Little Women. Quickly the story moves from “sweet words” to gruesome descriptions of battle and desperate escape. Right away March is placed in a compromising position in his effort to save a dying soldier, eventually having to let him go as they struggle together to cross the river. This is only one of many events that will torment March with guilt.

Motivation

As in Little Women, March is portrayed as an idealistic minister and dedicated abolitionist. Brooks recalls her motivation for writing March in an article by Linda Sickler of the Savannah Morning News:

“I was interested in what happens to idealists at war, people who go to war because of highly idealistic beliefs, but then find their ideals challenged by the very nature of war,” Brooks says. “I was thinking about this in the context of the Civil War.

“Then I remembered the absent father in Alcott’s novel, about whom we hear very little, except that he has enlisted to minister to the Union troops,” she says. “It seemed to me he would be an excellent vehicle through which to explore this question.”

March and Bronson Alcott

Brooks delves into the life of Bronson Alcott as the means of fleshing out March. It’s the obvious choice and a perfect one to boot: Bronson is the poster boy of impractical idealists.  In an interview for the PBS American Masters documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, Brooks admitts to an “immense soft spot” for Bronson. She also points out the difficulty of living day-to-day with such an idealist but contends that “they’re the ones that make the moral strides that lead humanity forward in its thinking … [Bronson] moved the bar to where we’ve all caught up with him now.”

Drawing upon real life

Bronson’s life story, beginning with his youth at Spindle Hill, followed by his career as a peddler, and culminating with his vocation as an educator and reformer, shapes the life of March. Brooks uses this history to create a convincing story of a loss of innocence and a fall from grace.

Ongoing themes

March explores several themes including the horror and insanity of war, the loss of innocence through moral failure, the meaning of courage and the necessity of compromise.

Interpretations of war

I couldn’t help but make a comparison between Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and March when it came tothe descriptions of war, injury and death. Disquieting and disturbing, Brooks paints the consequences of war with a broad brush of senselessness and cruelty while Louisa manages to draw out nobility and meaning in the midst of the chaos. Undoubtedly the eras in which these two works were written explain the differences in interpretation but I found myself longing for the comfort that Louisa provides.

Innocence lost

March’s loss of innocence and its consequences constitute the heart of the book. The clash of idealism with reality is violent, and the result is that the idealist is quickly reduced to a very frail man with feet of clay.

Not only are March’s values challenged in the public arena with the war and slavery, but in the private as well with regards to fidelity. Although March is deeply in love with his wife Marmee, he is also in love with a slave woman he meets in his youth, Grace Clement. Having met her on one of his peddling trips, he now keeps a lock of her hair along with the locks of Marmee and his daughters, in an envelope close to his bosom.

The meaning of courage

Lapses in courage haunt March as well. Fear and his instinct for survival undercut his idealism, resulting in two deaths and great suffering for others. In lamenting his own weakness, March recalls the daughter with the deepest capacity for courage, his little Mouse, Beth.

Overcoming her extreme shyness, Beth befriends a slave girl, Flora, hidden in the March home. Beth is the only one Flora will open up to. As a result of the strong bond between them, Beth summons the courage to protect her by standing up to the magistrate who wants to take Flora away.

Through the examples of March and Beth, Brooks demonstrates the need for self-sacrifice as the only means by which courage can be drawn. March discovers to his deep shame and horror that he does not have that capacity. Impractical idealist that he is, he never takes into account how lofty ideas will play out in the arena of life.

Compromise

March is not the only character who is all too human.

Part One of the book is narrated by March but switches to Marmee’s voice in Part Two since March is lying desperately ill in the hospital. Marmee, as depicted in Little Women, goes quickly to Washington to be by his side. It is here that she too discovers the idealist with the feet of clay.

She learns of his relationship with Grace by meeting the woman in person. Marmee learns through Grace of the horrors her husband faced during his service, details of which he never conveyed in his letters.

His compromises with regards to fidelity and truth leave Marmee feeling betrayed and angry. Soon, however, she finds that she too must compromise on the truth when it comes time to write to her girls of their father’s progress. It is this questioning of herself that causes Marmee to compromise on her anger and rededicate herself to her husband. Recognition of mutual brokenness ultimately preserves the union.

The verdict?

March is a compelling, albeit uncomfortable, read. Brooks does a masterful job of integrating the history of the Alcotts along with the story of Little Women to create a multi-layered, epic story with deeply moving characters. Every element of this story is painted in shades of gray, challenging the lofty idealism of the characters often portrayed in black and white terms. The true strength of the characters lies in their ability to adapt to the changing landscape. Fidelity is challenged but not sacrificed.

I am a reader who is evolving. March has proven to be an important stepping stone to a more sophisticated and critical approach to reading. It is an excellent companion to Little Women, providing a decidedly adult approach. It broadens and deepens the story of the March family.

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First thoughts on March

I decided upon reading March that I would read with an open mind. Fan fiction is a risky business (although calling March “fan fiction” doesn’t feel quite right, it’s a decidedly more serious work). The reader comes in with all kinds of pre-conceived notions and expectations, and the author can quickly fall out of favor if those expectations are not met.

Having read reviews on Amazon, I knew I’d have to keep an open mind.

Taking no prisoners

March is a powerful read; Geraldine Brooks doesn’t pull any punches. Based on the mostly absent character of Mr. March from Little Women, Brooks fleshes out the character, describing his experiences as a chaplain in the Civil War and how it changed him.

Little Women presents such a sanitized version of Mr. March that the reader has no sense of what he’s been through or what makes him tick. He’s a two-dimensional mystery and Brooks seeks to remedy that.

Jumping right in

Right from the start, she dives into the heart of the matter – the consequences of the Civil War (and any war) on the individual soldiers.

War ain’t pretty!

from ohiohistorycentral.org

Chapter 1 is full of very graphic descriptions of injuries and death. Being a rather sensitive soul, I find the need to read over these sections quickly. A leaden feeling in the stomach means memories that will haunt me in the middle of the night. I have a hard enough time sleeping! 🙂 War, however, is far from pretty and a realistic dose is a good thing.

Mr. March and Bronson Alcott

Chapter 2 gets into one of the major hot buttons of the Civil War – slavery and its abolition. Brooks jumps back in time to a 19 year-old March, working as a peddler in the South. This is where background reading on Bronson Alcott really helps. It so enriched the chapter for me being able to draw the parallels between Alcott and March.

The destructive force of slavery

March meets a slave named Grace whom he finds compelling and attractive – this plays out in a later chapter. He also discovers his vocation as a teacher when he is asked to teach a very bright slave girl how to read.

March and Roots

He then comes face to face with the ugliness of slavery and what it does to both black and white. Corrupting the white slave owner from within, the black slave suffers the consequences. I don’t want to give away too many details but suffice it to say I had a sudden urge to check out the episode of Roots where Kizzy is sold off because she helped a fellow slave to escape by forging a traveling pass. Sandy Duncan’s performance as the plantation owner’s niece, Missy Anne, had always impressed me. Here was the perfect example of how slavery corrupted someone from within. Kizzy felt brutal betrayal from her lifelong friend Missy Anne because Missy Anne failed to “protect her”; Missy Anne felt betrayed as well because Kizzy was “stupid” enough to help a fellow slave escape. Very haunting, just like this chapter.

What was Geraldine Brooks thinking?

It was in Chapter 4, however, where I began to figure out Brooks’ intention for this story. Here March meets Marmee; Brooks writes:

“After the service, her brother presented Miss Margaret Marie Day, whom everyone in the family called by the affectionate childhood name of Marmee.”

Her intention

Most provocative! A charming idea, but surely a stretch. Everyone who has cherished Little Women knows that the name of Marmee came from Lousia’s own use of the name for her own mother. Perhaps Brooks means for the name to be used for both as it does sound like a nickname for “mother.” Still, she took a big risk here of alienating readers.

This leads me to believe that Brooks means to be provocative. She wants to poke, prod and shake up the reader so that in no way the reader can remain lukewarm. A strong negative reaction is better than no reaction at all!

I have to admire that kind of courage in a writer; it makes me happy to suspend my expectations and go with the flow of this book.

Death and dying

I plan on using a separate post to explore Chapter 3. Brooks’ view of death is quite different from Louisa May Alcott’s view as shown in Little Women and Hospital Sketches. In the video I posted the other day featuring John Matteson, he read a chapter from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , where Louisa goes off to war. He cites many of the passages from Hospital Sketches that I had planned on re-reading after reading Chapter 3 of March. How timely that that video came along when Chapter 3 was so fresh in my mind. J

Have you read March? Were you able to suspend your expectations? What did you think?

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Reading Little Women and March simultaneously

For the longest time I have avoided reading March by Geraldine Brooks. I just wasn’t interested in Mr. March and had had my fill of Bronson Alcott. March, however, is enjoying tremendous popularity right now due to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

I subscribe to different key words on Google to keep with with all things Louisa and March came up again and again … and again! I felt like I was being sent a message – “Read this book!” and so I decided to dive in.

It seems like a great book to read alongside Little Women.

So far I am finding the writing to be powerful. I am also very glad I did the background reading (and writing) on Bronson Alcott because already I recognize much of what I read about his history in Mr. March. (If you want to see what I’ve written on Bronson, click here for a list of posts).

Although all of the articles I’ve read online have raved about March, there were several very critical reviews on Amazon.

I just plan to go with the flow on this one. I do love reading about the Civil War and have a wonderful Civil War Atlas that I will read along with these two books.

It should make for some rich discussion. 🙂


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Orchard House: Ghosts, gossip, snow . . . magic! (guest post by Gabrielle Donnelly)

I am thrilled to welcome another guest post from author Gabrielle Donnelly (The Little Women Letters). She shares her recent visit to Orchard House which included a meet-and-greet, a short talk and book signing.

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My father once remarked, the day after a successful family party, that “laughter will cling to the rafters of a house.”  I’ve always found that this is true, and not only for laughter, but for emotions of all kinds.  I’ve walked into a penthouse office suite in Santa Monica with important furnishings and a sweeping view of the bay, and felt rising to greet me a tidal wave of tedium, frustration and hopelessness; and yet my local supermarket in Venice, a windowless space in an underground parking lot which is staffed with happy people who are always pleased to see me, feels filled to the brim with sunshine.  I’ve visited a Victorian mansion in St. Louis where the elegantly appointed master bedroom hissed marital discord, tension, disappointment; and stayed with my husband in a hotel room in Rome so small that we quite literally had to take turns to walk from the rickety old bed to the dark little bathroom, where we giggled and billed and cooed like honeymooners.

And then there is Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House Museum in Concord, Massachusetts.  Orchard House is a funny, friendly, rambling sort of house on the outskirts of town, two houses knocked into one in fact, with stairways in unexpected places and rooms leading to other rooms leading to more stairways.  It is the home of two families who famously exuded warmth – the real life Alcotts and the fictional Marches – and I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that both sets of ghosts live on there still, and most happily and energetically so.

I have visited Orchard House twice – once many years ago, and once again, this last month.  In between visits, I’ve written a novel, The Little Women Letters, set partly in the present and partly in the world of the Marches.  While I was writing, I spent a lot of time in my imagination in Orchard House – sitting with Jo and her pet rat and her pile of apples up in the garret; receiving groceries with Hannah at the back door in the kitchen; enjoying the fun of a “theatrical” in the dining room, complete with rolling melodrama, a beautiful heroine (that would be Amy) and, of course, the much-prized russet boots that had once belonged to a real actress.  To say that my subsequent visit to the house lived up to my expectations, is akin to describing the Taj Mahal as a cottage in the country.

In an earlier post (A Meet And Greet Full Of Pleasant Surprises, on October 28) Susan has described the evening there that all of us present described as “magical,” where she and I and a bunch of other Louisa May Alcott fans sat in the Alcotts’ dining room in a gathering hosted by the magnificent Lis Adams, Orchard House’s Director of Education, and gossiped shamelessly about both the Alcotts and the Marches, while the rain turned to snow outside and the ghosts of the Marches wandered in and out, ever-busy Jo “flying” around with broom in hand and story in mind, Father strolling through with his head in a book, oblivious to household crises (do we want to canonize him or shake him? – we still can’t decide), Beth smiling quietly from the corner.

These were not frightening ghosts: there are no bad people in Little Women.  There are challenging circumstances: war and poverty, sickness and death, all must be faced and addressed, and, people being people, all have their personal demons – Meg’s vanity, Jo’s hot temper – to acknowledge and conquer.  But the people themselves are all fundamentally good.  And while Susan and I and the Orchard House people sat in that warm and friendly dining room, safe from the weather outside, we all knew without a doubt that the laughter not only from the Alcotts and the Marches, but from their friends the Emersons and the Hawthornes and Thoreau and the Laurences and Aunt March and Sallie Moffat, not to mention the hundreds and thousands of visitors that the house has welcomed since the Alcotts’ time, did not content itself with clinging to the rafters.  It reverberated through the entire building.

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A reminder that Orchard House is celebrating their centennial culminating with Memorial Day weekend in 2012. Gabrielle told me that the Colonial Inn off Concord center is nearly booked for that weekend. So if you want to participate in the festivities, you’ll want to make your reservations now.


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