Fruitlands through the years in sight and sound

Recently a reader (thank you Michelle!) sent me a wonderful interview with Richard Francis, author of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. Francis does an excellent job of clarifying a complex situation (anyone who has studied the Fruitlands experiment in depth knows what I mean!). It was presented on The Woman’s Hour on BBC, hosted by Jenni Murray.

Richard  Francis Interview

Fruitlands then and now

I thought too that you might enjoy a tour of Fruitlands through the ages. I combined photos from Clara Endicott Sears’ book, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands with photos I took on my last visit there:

Upper photo courtesy of Harriet Lothrop Papers, Minuteman National Park

Front of the house

Foyer

Kitchen

Dining room

Dining room

The study

Alcott’s bedroom

Charles Lane’s bedroom

The heart of the story

And here are pictures of the attic. I think these pictures bring home the human drama of Fruitlands more than anything. When you actually see it, you just want to sit there and ponder what went on in that dark, cramped and cold room:

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A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography

The 1930s was an interesting time in Alcott scholarship. The year 1932 marked the one hundredth year of Louisa’s birth. 1938 not only marked the 50th anniversary of Louisa and Bronson’s death but also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Thus in 1937, two important biographies were released – Odell Shepherd’s Pedlar’s Progress on Bronson Alcott (see previous post) and Katharine Anthony’s Louisa May Alcott.

Reception of the biography

alcotts bedellAnthony’s book was not well received. Although deemed substantive and scholarly by reviewer Frederic L. Carpenter (writing for the New England Quarterly in December of 1938), he roundly criticized her need to psychoanalyze Alcott, calling the results “unfortunate” and “ridiculous.”

martha saxton 190That, however, was 1938. More modern biographies by Martha Saxton in 1977 and Madelon Bedell in 1980 conduct their own psychoanalysis which makes for fascinating and often, uncomfortable, reading. This was true as well with Anthony’s book.

Controversies

And yet, Anthony’s book reads like a novel. It was one of the first adult books I read on Louisa (after Martha Saxton and Madeleine Stern). Knowing so much more now after years of research, Anthony’s take on Louisa affirmed much of what I had suspected and raised new controversies. I will focus on two of those controversies for this post.

A threesome at Fruitlands

Charles-Lane

Charles Lane

The first involves the relationship between Abba, Bronson and Charles Lane. Those of us knowledgeable of Fruitlands are aware of the complexity of the relationship between these three. Madelon Bedell has suggested a possible homosexual relationship between Bronson and Charles Lane. Other biographers think perhaps Lane was attracted to Abba despite the fact that he urged Bronson to be celibate. There is no doubt that Abba had many issues with Lane during the utopian experiment. In noting Charles Lane’s curious return to the Alcott family two years after Fruitlands, Anthony describes the difficulties Louisa experienced from this odd arrangement:

“For Louisa, who wished to see everything through her mother’s eyes, this reinstatement of the dragon was devastating. Her letters and diaries of that summer show how piteously distracted was her state of mind. If her mother, having once demolished the beast, had turned the sword in his body, all would’ve been plain sailing. But she saw now that the relation between the three grown-ups was a more complicated situation than she had any idea of and it gave her the feeling of a nerve-racking dilemma.  She wrestled precociously with her mother’s contradictory character, and the struggle made her sometimes despondent and sometimes reckless. The departure of Mr. Lane brought her providential relief.” (Louisa May Alcott, pg. 54)

Carpenter in his review called this section of the book “unpleasantly ambiguous,” wondering if Anthony was suggesting some kind of secret liaison between Lane and Abba since Bronson left for New York during his stay.

Going after Abba Alcott

abbaFor me, it was the beginning of a quiet vendetta against Abba Alcott by Katharine Anthony. With regards to the family’s need to move to Boston due to financial need, Anthony writes,

“A perverse vision had come to Mrs. Alcott while still in Concord. Both of her older daughters were earning wages. Anna was teaching away from home, and Louisa had begun to teach also, having opened a school in the barn. By a reversal of the usual process between parents and children, the girls set an example for their middle-aged mother. Mrs. Alcott, having steadily refused to see the necessity for working prior to her marriage when the necessity for it had been most apparent, now at once saw it very clearly. Just when her family needed her attention most, she decided to go forth and become a wage earner. Their finances had not become any worse, because Anna and Louisa had begun to bring a little money into the home. But Mrs. Alcott’s heroism drove her just at that point to take her spectacular plunge into a life of wage earning.” (Ibid, pg. 74)

Very different take

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Was Anthony’s criticism of Abba influenced by the time the author lived in? Women’s roles were still pretty much confined to the home in the 1930’s. Despite the fact that Anthony was a professor at Wellesley College along with being an accomplished author and scholar, she appeared to judge Abba by rather conventional standards. I am not aware of any other biographer taking the point of view that Abba did not need to go to work in Boston. Anthony insinuates on the next page that Abba’s efforts were not all that successful, citing no records of the reports she wrote on her work that were said to be excellent (such records now exist at the Houghton Library). She discounts the value of Abba’s intelligence office, writing that “The only domestic service job that Mrs. Alcott secured, as afar as we know, is the one she turned over to her daughter Louisa …” (Ibid, pg. 75)

Valuable analysis

Anthony’s various insights throughout Louisa May Alcott are interesting to say the least and they don’t just apply to Louisa. Anthony provides meaningful sketches of each member of the family (and in my opinion, she is one of the few to give Lizzie her due). Her analysis of Louisa is not oppressive or overbearing such as is the case with Martha Saxton (although I believe Saxton’s book has value) because she does not dwell on the amount of detail that Saxton reveals. The point, however, still gets across.

Health issues

louisa readingMuch has been made of Louisa’s health after her service as a nurse in the Civil War. After surviving both typhoid pneumonia and the mercury poisoning from being dosed with calomel, Alcott suffered from a wide variety of physical disorders including pains in her legs, headaches, digestive disorders, vertigo, the loss of her voice, etc. Historians and medical doctors Bert Hirschhorn and Ian Greaves suggested Lupus, an immune disorder, possibly triggered by the mercury poisoning (see Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)..

Louisa kept careful track in her journals of her health problems and often blamed “nerves” and overwork for her difficulties. Considering the heavy load that she carried in being head of the family and the breadwinner, it is not surprising. In the waning years of her life, she became obsessed with her health as she could find no relief.

Possible cause

Katharine Anthony offers her suggestion for Louisa’s health problems: shell-shock. Citing the Great War and the mental and nervous disorders in the veterans, she surmises that Civil War veterans would have also suffered similar trauma. “It was some form of shock to which Louisa May Alcott succumbed as a hospital nurse in 1862,” she writes (Ibid, pg. 252). Such an injury to the nervous system could afflict the victim for the rest of her life. Anthony also believes Alcott was predisposed to such a condition given her high strung nature.

from alcott.net

Lulu Nieriker, from alcott.net

There is no doubt that Louisa lamented repeatedly in her journal regarding the onslaught of her life and writing (aka, overwork) on her nerves. Between sudden fame for a woman who did not feel worthy, the untimely deaths of John Pratt and May Alcott, the care of May’s daughter and their aging father, and the self-inflicted pressure to continue writing (and earning), it is no wonder Louisa May Alcott had health issues.

Louisa’s last days were painful, difficult and sad as despair overtook her. The final pages of Louisa May Alcott describe those days with a haunting eloquence as Anthony marvels at Alcott’s ability to continue churning out cheerful and meaningful stories for the young even to her dying day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Alcotts at Fruitlands, seen through the eyes of a “regular child:” Book Review: Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass

little women next doorSome of the best books written about Louisa May Alcott are those geared for children.

One of my favorites is Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass. In a gentle yet poignant story Klass shows the Alcotts during their time Fruitlands through the eyes of a child from a typical family of the 1840s. That view does much to tone down Bronson’s reputation as a crackpot or lunatic. While he was probably his most extreme self during this period, Klass shows the valuable gifts he instilled in his children. Bronson may have been a lunatic at times, but he was also a gifted teacher who opened the world to his children.

About the main character

In this story, Louisa and her sisters help a girl deprived of her childhood to gain it back again by helping her to blossom from within. The main character, Susan, is a child who lost her mother at birth and whose father keeps his distance because he associates Susan with the loss of his wife. While her aunt is kind and caring, Susan is lonely with no friends her own age and no inner life of imagination. Furthermore she stutters which makes communication very difficult. Her father’s lack of patient with her affliction only makes it worse.

New friend

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Sheila Solomon Klass www.bmcc.cuny.edu

Susan and her family live next door to Fruitlands and soon meet the Alcotts after they move in. Here Klass shines a light on the Alcotts by comparing them to Susan and her family in terms of what they deem important. Those of us who immerse ourselves in all things Alcott forget how extraordinary this family was. Susan discerned immediately that Louisa was special.

Learning self expression

Susan takes lessons from Bronson along with the Alcott girls and William, the son of Charles Lane. Susan finds Bronson to be a very different kind of teacher, kind and patient as he works with her to overcome her stutter. Anna and Louisa help too. In addition Louisa gives Susan a journal and invites her to write down her thoughts.

Growth and reconciliation

Susan’s exposure to the freedom and imaginative games that the Alcott children enjoy transforms her. Growing in confidence and now able to communicate with her father through her writings, Susan and her father reconcile.

Bronson’s greatest gift

I really loved this book. It was a very different look at the Alcotts as seen through the eyes of a “regular” child who blossomed because of her friendship with Louisa and her lessons with Bronson. With all the talk about Bronson’s many flaws, he did give Louisa the key to the interior life, one full of adventure, and a place where she could retreat when the world around her was too hard to bear. It was that interior life that would eventually equip Louisa with the tools to take her family out of the perpetual poverty to which Bronson had subjected it.

You can find Little Women Next Door on Amazon.

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The unknown players of Fruitlands – finally hearing their voices

What was it like to live at Fruitlands?

Serious Alcott biographers have devoted much ink to the family’s experience during this six-month utopian experiment. Sometimes thoughtful, often absurd and always dramatic, Fruitlands is credited with both the shaping of the famous daughter, and a change in the power structure of the Alcott marriage and family life.

Richard Francis’ exhaustive study, Fruitlands The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia reveals extensive excerpts from the writings of Charles Lane whom, with Bronson Alcott, created the community.

bronson alcott's fruitlandsBut what about other members?

In Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, Clara Endicott Sears reveals the lives and writings of two such members: Joseph Palmer and Isaac Thomas Hecker. It is a rare view of Fruitlands from those who simply lived it.

Isaac Hecker

Isaac Hecker was a seeker. Feeling an urgent inner call to an ascetic spiritual life, he came over from Brook Farm to join the Fruitlands community. Born in New York in 1819 to a well-to-do merchant family, his long and winding road would eventually lead to the priesthood and the founding of the Paulist Fathers. These progressive priests dedicated themselves to spreading the Catholic faith in America using the modern methods of preaching on the road and the printing press. They stressed the personal holiness of each individual, believing that the European Church placed too much emphasis on the routine side of religious observance (Wikipedia, Isaac Hecker).

Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands

Isaac Hecker went through much torturous soul searching before deciding on the celibate life of a priest. He found separating from Brook Farm to be excruciating but the call within for the spiritual life was too strong. He writes:

“I can hardly present myself from saying how much I shall miss the company of those I love and associate with here. But I must go. I am called with a stronger voice … Here are refining amusements, cultivated persons – and one whom I have not spoken of, one who is too much to me to speak of, one who would leave all for me. Alas! Him I must leave to go.” (pg. 76-77, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott Sears).

Hecker’s biographer, Walter Elliot in Life of Father Hecker, attempts to clarify the use of the word “Him,” indicating that Hecker appeared to have originally written “Her,” then changed it to “Him.” Whatever the nature of the relationship, it was an attachment that Hecker felt he must break in order to achieve spiritual perfection.

He hoped to find that at Fruitlands. He adjusted well to the diet and clothing requirements and at first, seemed to be finding the life he sought. He describes conversations amongst the members:

“This morning after breakfast a conversation was held on Friendship and its laws and conditions. Mr. Alcott places Innocence first; [Samuel] Larned, Thoughtfulness; I, Seriousness; Lane, Fidelity.” (Ibid, pg. 78, from July 12).

And

“… there was held a conversation on the Highest Aim. Mr. Alcott said it was Integrity; I, Harmonic being; Lane, Progressive being; Larned, Annihilation of self; [Samuel] Bower, Repulsion of the evil in us. Then there was a confession of the obstacles which prevent us from attaining the highest aim. Mine was the doubt whether the light is light; not want of will to follow, or light to see.” (Ibid, from July 13)

It did not take long for Hecker to realize that Fruitlands would not meet his spiritual needs:

“… I cannot live at this place as I would. This is not the place for my soul … My life is not theirs.” (Ibid, pg. 82, from July 23)

While he admired Charles Lane’s unselfishness, he suspected Bronson’s motives: “I suspect he wanted me because thought I would bring money to the Community. (Ibid, pg. 84). He noted the enormous work load Abba and her daughters carried while “Mr. Alcott looked benign and talked philosophy.” (Ibid)

Hecker would move back home to New York with his family and maintain the ascetic dietary life he discovered at Fruitlands. In six years he would become a Roman Catholic priest.

Joseph Palmer

Palmer was the practical support for Fruitlands. He provided animals to plow the fields when Bronson and Lane realized they could not break the earth themselves. In fact, those animals caused somewhat of a scandal when it was learned that Abba was taking milk from the cow to give to two year-old Abby May.

Although Joseph Palmer went back and forth from Fruitlands to his farm in No Town, he was fully committed to the community, providing farming skills and tools. He also provided practical and moral support to Abba when the community was collapsing and they faced starvation and the cold of winter. He was to eventually take over the property and turn it into his own community, the Leominster and Harvard Benevolent Association (Wikipedia, Joseph Palmer).

joseph palmer

What is perhaps most remembered about Palmer though was his attachment to his fine, luxurious white beard. He was mocked and openly persecuted for it in the 1830s and was even imprisoned for a time. Relishing the opportunity to fight for his right to wear it, he remained in prison longer than was necessary until he was asked to leave. A man of principle, he never wavered and kept the beard till his dying day.

After finally leaving jail, Palmer heard about Fruitlands and being a reformer at heart, was eager to join. He offered to run the farm pro bona and provided furniture for the house. Without his practical help, Fruitlands would not have survived as long as it did. He was much more a doer, while Bronson and Lane especially, preferred to just “be.”

The legacy of Fruitlands preserved, thanks to a visionary

Clara Endicott Sears did a great service by providing her book and purchasing the property to preserve for the ages.  Looking over the beautiful vista, one can imagine the community living in the house, the girls running through the fields and the meaningful and often challenging conversations that took place. There was hope in the valley.

But one can also sense the ghosts of broken promises, the oppression of poverty, the bone-chilling winter cold, the desperation of certain starvation and the tensions that tore away at a close family. These were the things that molded and fueled a certain impressionable, highly creative little girl with great talent to dream big dreams that would take care of her family for the rest of their lives, and impact generations of women after her.

For a mere six month experiment, Fruitlands was indeed important. Thank goodness Clara Endicott Sears had the vision and the means to preserve it.

Click to Tweet & ShareThe unknown players of Fruitlands – we finally hear their voices http://wp.me/p125Rp-1nt

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

A quick update

I realize it’s been nearly a month since I posted and I wanted to let you know why.

I am hip deep in reading. And it started with a field trip to Fruitlands in Harvard, MA. And it will end there too.

After visiting Fruitlands, I wanted to read more about it. I ended up reading the following:

On top of that, on November 6, two books appeared on my Nook which I had pre-ordered:

And how do these all connect? Eve LaPlante is doing a talk and book signing at Fruitlands on December 1st! You can bet I plan on being there.

Fruitlands by Richard Francis is the hardest book I have ever read. I tried it when it first came out two years ago and was completely overwhelmed by it. Francis is utterly brilliant (and quite droll too – see previous post) but I never thought I could finish that book. I took copious notes and just gave up.

Visiting Fruitlands made me pick it up again. And now I only have 70+ pages left. But you can see how many more notes I will be taking!

Here are some other posts I did on this book way back when:

I need to finish reading this book plus at least Marmee & Louisa before December 1st. Wish me luck!

And I will be sharing many things with you soon.

Click to Tweet & Share: Marmee & Lousia by Eve Laplante, and Fruitlands by Richard Francis – what’s the connection? http://wp.me/p125Rp-1iF

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

Book Review: Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary

Since a children’s biography (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard) introduced me to Louisa, I have a special fondness for children’s books on the subject. During a recent trip to the Worcester Public Library, I discovered Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary, edited by Cary Ryan with illustrations by Mark Graham. It was the perfect introduction to Louisa’s voice, greatly whetting my appetite for more.

Setup of the book

The book’s chapters are arranged by theme and therefore the information is not in chronological order. Since the story jumps around quite a bit, it could be confusing for a newcomer to Louisa’s life. However, a 13 year-old reviewer on Amazon commented that the book made her want to read more, so I would say the author did her job.

There is, sadly, little that remains of Louisa’s earliest journal entries so I appreciated the author’s commentary surrounding them. I also appreciated clarifications of intent, and the spelling and grammar corrections.

Louisa’s own voice

In these scant entries I hear a voice that is spirited, fierce, poignant, sometimes confused and deeply burdened with guilt. Louisa’s moods are legendary and even in these short passages you see the swings:

Sunday, September 21st, Fruitlands
“Father and Mr. Lane have gone to N[ew] Hampshire to preach. It was very lovely . . . Anna and I got supper. In the eve I read [Oliver Goldsmith’s] “[The] Vicar of Wakefield.” I was cross to-day and I cired when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the wold. But I don’t, and so am very bad.” (pages 3 and 4)

Tomboy Louy

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

The spirited and fierce Louisa wrote, “I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.”
(page 1).

Writing as a release

I got the impression that writing in her journal was therapeutic for Louisa; I know the benefits of that therapy having employed the method a great deal during my adolescence. But at least my journal was private. Imagine having your father commenting in the margins, and frowning upon your self-expression, condemning it as “selfish”!

Her poem about ruling her inner self and trying to find peace demonstrates this use of writing as a means to keep her chaotic inner life in order:

My Little Kingdom (pages 8 and 9)

A little kingdom I possess
where thoughts and feelings dwell,
And very hard I find the task
of governing it well;
For passion tempts and troubles me,
A wayward will misleads,
And selfishness its shadow casts
On all my words and deeds.

How can I learn to rule myself,
to be the child I should,
Honest and brave, nor ever tire
Of trying to be good?
How can I keep a sunny soul
To shine along life’s way?
How can I tune my little heart
To sweetly sing all day?

Dear Father, help me with the love
that casteth out my fear;
Teach me to lean on thee, and feel
That thou art very near,
That no temptation is unseen
No childish grief too small,
Since thou, with patience infinite,
Doth soothe and comfort all.

I do not ask for any crown
But that which all may win
Nor seek to conquer any world
Except the one within.
Be thou my guide until I find,
Led by a tender hand,
Thy happy kingdom in myself
And dare to take command.

Always at war

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

Her father Bronson’s attempts to mold Louisa into his ideal fueled the war within herself. (page 12) Instead of appreciating her strong will, creative and physical energies, and her passion, she instead condemned herself as “proud”, “”wilful” and “selfish”. It is a testament to her resourcefulness that she found a way to express herself (and edify the world) by means of caring for her “pathetic family,” even if it did create a prison of obligation from which she could never escape.

Bronson in a nutshell

Ryan did a great job in summing up Bronson’s education contributions. I marvel at anyone who can sum up succinctly what this man had to offer! She begins with a quote from Little Women on page 11:

“If [Demi] is old enough to ask the questions he is old enough to receive true answers. I am not putting the thoughts into his head, but helping him unfold those already there. These children are wiser than we are, and I have no doubt the boy understands every word I have said to him.”
Mr. March of his grandson, Little Women

She then writes:

“Bronson Alcott believed that a child’s ‘divine nature’ could be “awakened” by dialogues between teacher and pupil – question-and-answer conversations that “unfolded” what was already within the child. As Louisa wrote, ‘My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child’s nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strassburg goose, with more than it could digest.’ “

Ideal versus reality

Cary Ryan does a wonderful job of summing up the ideal vs. the reality of Bronson’s teaching methods, demonstrating again how Bronson’s ego so got in the way. She likens his Q &A’s to “bullying sessions” where he imposes his own divine nature on his daughters and students, believing his divine nature is superior to theirs. Another sign of a narcissistic personality disorder? He could have accomplished so much more had he been free of this demon!

A sad truth

Charles Lane

One of the most poignant entries by Louisa was this dialog between her and the notorious Charles Lane, Bronson’s partner at Fruitlands:

(I made Mr. Lane’s questions bold to distinguish them from Louisa’s answers)

How can you get what you need?
By trying.

How do you try?
By resolution and perseverance.

How gain love?
By gentleness.

What is gentleness?
Kindness, patience, and care for other people’s feelings.

Who has it?
Father and Anna.

Who means to have it?
Louisa, if she can.

And Louisa adds years later, “She never got it.” (page 14)

Love and self-love

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

What immediately struck me was Louisa’s entry years after the initial one – did she ever feel that she “gained” love as she, by her own admission, never achieved “gentleness?” How pathetic that she was taught such a narrow definition of love, both on being loved and how to be loving. Surely the untiring care she showed her family in such practical ways was giving love too, even if it wasn’t “gentle.” Susan Cheever in her biography Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography had suggested that Louisa never felt truly loved and I had discounted it because Abba in particular made such an effort to help and support her. But perhaps Cheever is right after all – Louisa herself may have never felt truly loved. How sad.

What did young Louisa read?

This book was a great beginning resource for finding out what Louisa read in her childhood. As I am on a quest this year to read some of what she read, I found that to be very helpful. Some examples are:

  • The Judicious Father (no author mentioned)
  • Rosamond by Maria Edgeworth
  • The Home by Frederika Bremer
  • Kenilworth and Heart of Mid-Lothian by Sir Walter Scott
  • Philothea by Lydia Marie Child

Big as all outdoors

As a final thought, Cary Ryan ended the book with Louisa’s personal encounter with God out in the woods and meadow (I’ve listed it as my favorite quote on this blog – you can see it in the right hand column) (page 35). Having gotten a deeper sense of how big a personality she really was, it makes perfect sense that she found God in the outdoors, the only space big enough to allow her to express her true self. And we can only find God when we are truly ourselves.

Have you read Louisa’s journals and/or letters? What are your impressions?


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Talking with Jeannine Atkins, author of “Becoming Little Women”

As promised, here is the follow-up interview with Jeannine Atkins, the author of Becoming Little Women.

Susan, Thank you so much for the opportunity to reflect back on writing Becoming Little Women and the fascinating people who inspired my novel! And, always, for spreading your passion for Louisa May Alcott. Someone who is certainly worthy of coming back to again and again.

1. Fruitlands is a difficult topic for adults, what prompted you to write about it for children?

Louisa kept journals for most of her life, a habit I expect was important to her writing of fiction. I believe the first journals, at least to survive, are those she kept at Fruitlands. I see this as the beginning of Louisa’s long, productive writing career, beginning at age ten.

Particularly in my generation, many girls who wanted to be writers, or dreamed of independence, identified with Jo in Little Women. I’m happy girls still read that novel, and still want to be like Jo, but I wanted to show that Louisa’s writing stemmed from enduring hardships as well as having good times, such as writing and acting in plays with her sisters.

2. How did you research this book? How long did you work on it?

Around the same time I was writing Becoming Little Women, I wrote a picture book called Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon about a girl in the early 1800s who became the first person to make a living selling fossils. Mary came from a poor family and left school by age ten. There was very little documentation of her work.

Writing about the Alcotts was the opposite experience. Not only all the Alcotts, but it seemed like half the population of Concord, kept journals! I was able to read some from the family (holding original documents at Harvard’s Houghton Library was a highlight of my life) as well as accounts by people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson who visited the farm. I read, while doing other things, for about a year, then wrote and revised for two, maybe three, more years.

3. How does an author become comfortable enough with the history to write a fiction novel based on that history?

I grew up in Massachusetts, where I still live, and as a child visited Orchard House with dear cousins (including one named Meg, who is worthy of that name) and Fruitlands. Orchard House was a thrill of recognition for a girl who’d play-acted that book before I read it. But Fruitlands just seemed strange. I did feel haunted by the hot attic with slanting ceilings where the girls slept. I felt, before knowing many facts, how hard that must have been.

Writing historical fiction is somewhat like the play-acting of children. You take what is known, and then let your imagination go from there. I did have those wonderful diaries, but a lot was left out. As a historical novelist, I took it upon myself to read between the lines.

4. What inspired you to portray William Lane as you did?

Hearing about a boy who’d been separated from his mother and crossed the ocean with a father who was by almost every account grim kind of broke my heart. I tried to find out what happened to William, but ended up facing walls. I do know of biographers who work for years, even decades, trying to track down such information, and thank goodness these intrepid researchers exist. But I took my role as historical novelist to move as far as seemed sensible into research, then let speculation take over. I knew from the journals that William annoyed the girls, but as an adult I could understand the insecurities that might have made him hard to get along with. I tried to write about someone who might boast to try to gain a place in the world, while really being frightened. I thought back to a boastful, bossy boy in my neighborhood: as an adult, I can see things I didn’t as a child about why he might have acted as he did.

5. Anna seemed more normal, rather than saintly, in your story. How did you come by that portrait of her?

What we have of Anna’s journals are elegant, and the family thought she would be the writer. Sadly, her journals from Fruitlands were destroyed by her father (he also destroyed his own from that sad time). But that tells me something about Anna’s capacity for truth and description. It seems clear that the three oldest girls worked hard to please their parents. From Louisa’s viewpoint, her older sister managed her temper  better, and her admiration of that led to a portrait as sweet. But Anna longed for stability, and while she loved her family, surely it irked her to move so often and be asked to live so differently from neighbors. She really had to marry and have children to get the domestic life she dreamed of. And as a child, I expect she took out some frustration on her younger sisters, because she would never act out with her parents.

6. How do you feel about Bronson and Charles Lane?

Their ideals are admirable, but I really couldn’t stand these men. It was hard to understand how they couldn’t see the suffering of Abba and the children, or make this of less importance than their lofty goals. Louisa probably began to question her father at this time, but she always loved and defended him; one of my hardest tasks was to try to see him through her eyes.

7. Do you have a favorite scene or moment in the book?

I wept my way through much of writing the ending. A book for children should end with hope, I think, and of course there was always hope for Louisa. She spun gold out of difficult situations. I was glad to find a way to show how the anger she struggled with could also bring her some salvation.

To find out more about Jeannine and to purchase her books, visit her website at www.jeannineatkins.com.


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