Fiction or non-fiction? How should I tell the story of Lizzie?

Note: Although I had promised a series of posts on women’s health in the nineteenth century, I need to postpone those posts until I clear up a problem with citing an important source. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I thought I would share this with you.

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Doing a book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott presents a problem: how do you get inside the head of someone who was so private? While one can speculate by “reading between the lines” when pouring over family letters, it’s hard to fully explore the private line in a biographical setting.

At one time, I was considering doing a fiction book (like Jeannine Atkins’ wonderful Little Woman in Blue) but decided against it because I am not a fiction writer. I read very little fiction, preferring biographies and essays. It seems to me one ought to be immersed in fiction to write fiction.

However, I did try my hand at it with a couple of attempts. This piece was going to be the introduction to a fiction book and I thought you’d like to see. I have another one, less finished, that I’ll show you in the next post.

I have to admit, I enjoyed writing these pieces. Maybe I will continue writing them if only to prime the pump for the real thing.

Here goes:

Prologue

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

I’m hovering over my body laid out on the bed. Where has my hair gone? My face is so thin, hollow and pale. I look like a skeleton. At least the pain is gone. I see my mother and sister gazing up at me. There’s a look of wonder in their eyes although their cheeks are wet. Louisa is looking at Marmee and she’s saying, “What did you see?” I wonder where I am going, I hope it’s someplace with lots of flowers and sun. And music! Will I hear angels singing where I am going?

I thought I wanted to leave but now I’m not sure. The pain was terrible, even the ether didn’t help. Poor Father, he tried. I just couldn’t look at his face so consumed with sadness and worry. I just couldn’t look.
I don’t want to leave my family. Not just yet. I want to see what happens next. Will Anna marry John Pratt? From what she told me, he’s a very nice man. Funny too. Anna deserves someone nice.

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Amy March from Little WomenWill my little Abby May become a famous artist someday? I want to see! Her drawings and paintings are so wonderful. She loves pretty things just like I do but she knows how to capture and keep them forever on paper. I can only remember.

And Louy. My Lu. I shall miss her so. She made me feel alive. She was so unafraid and me, well, I never wanted to leave the house. She will write a great book one day, I imagine lots of great books. Her head is always so full of stories.

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersDear Marmee … oh Marmee, don’t cry! It wasn’t your fault. Those children, they were so sick. I wanted to help too. I wish I had been stronger, for you. You are my hero! How I wish I could sit in your lap right now, lean my head on your bosom and murmur “I love you.” Because I do. How could I not? You showed me what it means to be kind and giving. There was nothing you wouldn’t or couldn’t do.

Father, Father! You and I, we are one. I didn’t understand your words but your heart and mine, we were one. You were like Jesus to me. I wish I could snuggle close to you right now and tell you that. How I will miss your sweet, quiet voice. When you’d talk to me, it was like being outside in the sun, so warm, so peaceful.

lizzie alcott graveMy dear family! I have to leave now. God is good, I’m sure; He will let me watch over you. Keep my memory, let that console you. Come and visit me at Sleepy Hollow. Under the shade of the big elms we can be together.
I want to tell your story. My family, what a story! Lu, you have to tell it. I will help you. I will fill your mind with sweet memories. Oh yes, I know, we had it hard sometimes. I remember that gnawing in my belly and the only thing to fill it was that dry graham. I never told Father but I didn’t like it. It was like eating paper. But it was so sweet how he used to shape it into my favorite animals. It didn’t make it taste any better but the love he put into it made it sweeter somehow.

Lu, please tell our story, won’t you? Walk with me through the years, through those funny plays you and Anna used to put on that had us laughing, crying and shouting for more. Encore! Now that I am gone from this earth, maybe I can get inside your mind and watch the birth of your stories. I was always amazed at how you could stew on stories, cooking them to perfection while chopping vegetables in the kitchen. That head of yours was always so busy!
I hope there are kittens in Heaven. Remember all my kittens? So soft and furry, I loved hearing them purr. Maybe I will see all my pussycats again, running around in Heaven.

Did you know what went on inside of me? I know, I wasn’t good at sharing. I had many thoughts, many feelings but I was afraid to share. You and Anna, you were so smart! You had so many great thoughts to share. Father and Mother, they liked listening to your journals. I know they wanted me to share too but I just couldn’t. I was selfish, clinging to them as I did. And our family, we had hard times. I didn’t want to add to that with my little crosses. Sometimes those crosses got heavy though. This last cross was especially heavy. I died on this cross. Does that mean now that I am like Jesus?

What will God look like? Everything is very bright around me. How I wish I could tell you, shout to the world how happy I feel at this moment even as I say goodbye to you. Oh but dear family, I am not gone from your hearts.

Lu, I know you are the storyteller but I want to tell our story too. Now that I am well, I am free. For some reason, I no longer feel afraid to share what’s inside of me. I have so much that I want to tell you. May I tell you?

Marmee, Lu, there’s a mist around me, is that what you see? You are watching me rise up to Heaven, just as Father said I would. Isn’t God good to give you this glimpse of me, well, happy, ready to take on my brand new life. Father used to read the Holy Bible to us, remember? I’m glad he did that because I got to hear the word of God. It was hard to understand then but now I understand it all. I am rising up to God just like it says in the Bible: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” I never knew what incense was; I think Father said it was like smoke. Smoke goes up into the air. But now I am a mist. Marmee, Louisa, you’re getting smaller and smaller. I wish I could reach out my arms to you for one last goodbye. My mist will stay with you, cover you like a sweet, light blanket on a summer’s night. Wrap myself around you. Remember me.

And I will remember you.

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An announcement followed by a discovery

As you can see from the teasers I’ve been posting lately, there is a lot coming down the road! Much of it is coming from an announcement I’d like to make.

The announcement

lizzie alcott2Now that the major work for my two books is behind me, I am dedicating my efforts towards my book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott. It will be an in-depth biography making use of the many letters and journal entries from Lizzie herself and her family members. It will be about her life as well as her death–this shadow sister will finally emerge from the shadows. I am hoping to show the impact of this unassuming and quiet woman’s life on those around her including a brilliant philosopher and teacher, and a world-famous authoress. Continue reading

“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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For Moms and their ‘Little Women’

In honor of Mother’s Day, I am delighted to present this guest post by Barbara Solomon Josselsohn reprinted with permission from NYMetroParents.

A two-day trip to Concord, Massachusetts and the home of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, is a great way to commemorate Mother’s Day—or any other time set aside just for the girls. Explore this weekend getaway and experience unforgettable memories, Little Women style.

To me, Louisa May Alcott is the quintessential feminist, a working woman who earned enough from writing to pay the bills, support her impractical father, and have a bit left over to vacation in Europe, where she reportedly enjoyed the company of a dashing younger man. To my teenage daughter, she’s an exquisite role model, a talented writer compelled to give life to the scores of beguiling characters dancing around in her head.

So when the opportunity arose for Rachel, then 15, and me to steal away for a weekend last summer, we could think of no better place than Concord, home to our favorite storyteller.

We left Westchester on Saturday morning, and after stopping for lunch on the way, arrived in Concord in the early afternoon. A long, shady road led us directly to Orchard House, home to the Alcotts between 1858 and 1877 and the place where 36-year-old Louisa would write her classic novel, Little Women. The structure of the house is unchanged since the mid-19th century and the majority of furnishings once belonged to the family, so the feeling of authenticity is palpable. As we learned from our guide, the Alcotts were a tight-knit, accomplished group: Dad was a visionary, Mom was a social-justice advocate, oldest daughter Anna (Meg in Little Women) was an actress, and youngest daughter May (Amy) was an acclaimed artist whose paintings adorn the house. (A fourth sister, Elizabeth, died young, as did her namesake in the book, Beth.)

Of course, the best part was exploring Louisa’s bedroom and examining the half-moon shaped desk, nestled against a wall and between two windows, which her father built for her and where she would write her masterpiece. We learned lots of charming personal nuggets, such as the fact that Louisa had what she called a “mood pillow”—a small bolster that she’d position in one way or another to let her family know her temperament at any given moment. My daughter loved this idea so much that she bought a replica in the gift shop, to inform us of her changing moods.

Our guide said not to miss the historic and nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the Alcotts are buried. So after a quick stop in the center of Concord for iced tea and muffins, we were on the road again.

Within Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, we found “Author’s Ridge,” a rocky, shaded hill that serves as the final resting place for the entire Alcott clan as well as the great American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathanial Hawthorne. It was here that we thought about the Alcott family’s later life, which was not entirely happy. Specifically, Louisa’s sister Anna was widowed as a young mother, and her sister May died soon after giving birth to a daughter. (Louisa would go on to raise the little girl as her own.) Louisa, who never married, suffered from chronic health problems, and died at age 56. It’s nice to think that she is buried close to her parents and surrounded by her sisters, the core of her life and the inspiration for so much of her creative output.

We stayed in Boston that night, thinking that we could use a little action after so much quiet and contemplation, and we chose a hotel right on the harbor and steps away from Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Taking full advantage of this location, we had a tasty seafood dinner alfresco and then strolled the area, enjoying the street performers, shops, and summer breeze coming off the water.

The next morning we headed to the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard (45 minutes from Boston) to explore one of the lesser-known chapters in Louisa’s life. It seems that her father, like his friends Emerson and Thoreau, was a member of the Transcendentalist movement, which held that connecting with nature was the key to spiritual enlightenment. Partnering with like-minded philosophers, Alcott moved his family to a farmhouse, now the Fruitlands Museum, when Louisa was 10, in an effort to withdraw from society and live only on what they could grow. The problem was, the group knew nothing about farming, and Alcott’s retreat lasted a mere seven months.

Though Alcott left Fruitlands disillusioned and disappointed, his effort was not a total failure, as it inspired Louisa years later to write Transcendental Wild Oats, a deliciously funny, largely autobiographical account of her family’s ill-fated experience.

Today, Fruitlands is home to the restored farmhouse and museum, as well as to Fruitlands Café, a magnificent open-air eatery. Its canopied patio sits atop an enormous hill with a spectacular view of the Noasha Valley, and the altitude creates a lovely breeze even on the warmest summer day. Rachel and I enjoyed a lunch of fresh salads and homemade ice cream for dessert. More important, we had the chance to savor a relaxed, uninterrupted mother-daughter conversation—something we don’t get to do often enough, thanks to the rush of everyday life.

After lunch we stopped at the gift shop and spent way too much on a stack of Louisa’s lesser-known books—yes, they’d be cheaper on Amazon.com, but it felt more special to buy them here. Then it was back to Boston. We dropped in on the New England Aquarium for a quick visit because it was so close to our hotel, and then enjoyed the warm late-afternoon sun on a bench near the harbor, sipping iced Starbucks drinks and picking out which books we each wanted to read first.

We left Boston early Monday morning, and were soon back to our everyday routines. My only regret about the weekend is that it went by so fast—and I truly hope we’ll do it all again one day soon.

An Alcott Adventure: Mark these important places on your itinerary:

Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a freelance writer based in Scarsdale, NY  and the mother of three children. You can read her blog, Just Another Working Writer

Coming to Concord this summer? Here’s some recommendations

The Wayside, home to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts

I just created a page with personal recommendations of places to visit and things to do while visiting Concord, Massachusetts. The one thing I could not recommend is hotels because I live too close to Concord to have stayed overnight.

Here’s some recommendations for those of you who want to indulge in living history (to me, that’s fun :-)):

Come Visit Concord . . .

Take a tour of the final resting place of the Alcotts

There’s a terrific article on the Concord Patch written by a licensed Concord tour guide, Harry Beyer. He takes you on a tour of the Alcott family plot at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Here’s a teaser from the article:

Louisa May was an active abolitionist, helping to shelter runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. She was also an early feminist. Protesting the exclusion of women from Concord’s 1875 Centennial parade and ceremony at Old North Bridge (the celebration at which Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue was unveiled), she wrote “It was impossible to help thinking, that there should have been a place for the great granddaughters of Prescott, William Emerson, John Hancock, and Dr. Ripley, as well as for … the scissors that cut the immortal cartridges” for the shot heard round the world. “It seemed to me that … the men of Concord had missed a grand opportunity of imitating those whose memory they had met to honor.”

Here’s the link to the article where you can read more and see the grave markers for each family member.

I thought it was very curious (and very cool) that of all the biographies written about the Alcotts, Beyer recommends Madelon Bedell’s book, The Alcotts Biography of a Family. I’d love to know why . . . I left a comment on the post inquiring, hopefully he’ll answer.