How did serving as one of the first nurses of the Civil War lead to Louisa May Alcott’s runaway best seller, Little Women? Children’s author Kathleen Krull explores this journey in a delightful picture book entitled Louisa May’s Battle: How the Civil War led to Little Women, published by Walker & Company, New York.
Making extensive use of Hospital Sketches plus quotes from Louisa’s journals, Krull tells the story of Louisa’s burning desire to participate in the historic war by means of serving as a nurse. She writes,
“ ‘I long to be a man,’ Louisa May Alcott scribbled one day, ‘but as I can’t fight, I will content myself with working for those who can.’ Coming from a family that was part of the Underground Railroad to shelter runaway slaves, she burned to help the war effort.”
Krull presents a very human Louisa, fighting her fears and frustrations during the long and complex journey to Washington, D.C. by train and ferry. One gets the sense of a sheltered woman experiencing the outside world for the first time, working through those fears and embracing the excitement of being out on her own.
Krull’s lively descriptions, complemented by Caryln Beccia’s vivid and colorful illustrations, transports the reader into the thick of the action at the Union Hotel hospital where the wounded stream in after the infamous Battle of Fredericksburg. Again Louisa must confront her fears to care for the men: bathing them, comforting them during surgeries (where often either was not available), reading to them, writing letters, listening and keeping up their spirits. Hiding her own emotions behind a sharp wit, Louisa uses the Charles Dickens books she had brought to entertain her patients.
Krull conveys the attachment that Louisa has to her “boys” along with the pride she takes in her work and her sense of being a part of history in the making.
She describes the letters Louisa sent home, letters full of “snap and bite.” These correspondences would later lead to her first real success as a writer, Hospital Sketches.
Louisa pays a high price for her service with a serious illness that left her with lifelong ailments. Krull writes,
“Yet she had no regrets: ‘All that is best and bravest in the hearts of men and women, comes out in scenes like these; and though a hospital is a rough school,’ she had learned so much about human nature – and herself.”
Krull sets the logical course for Hospital Sketches and Little Women, citing Louisa’s desire to make money for the family through her writing. In the course of compiling Hospital Sketches, Louisa realizes that she has found her style, that of writing from her own experience, combining her humor with her large heart.
Krull then chronicles Louisa’s writing of Little Women; here Beccia’s illustrations really shine, complete with a composite of scenes surrounding a portrait of the author with pen in hand.
Wrapping up her experience with the Civil War and its after-effects Krull writes,
“Being a war veteran was the key to all that she accomplished: ‘My greatest pride is . . . that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong.’
It was service to her country that made Louisa May Alcott the author of books that would live forever.”
Louisa May’s Battle shares an accurate and fleshed-out version of Louisa while highlighting an important universal theme: that stepping outside the comfort zone and working for the greater good can lead to accomplishments never before imagined.
This book is beautifully designed, well-presented, and will engage young readers in a wonderful story about a woman who dared to be brave despite the hardship.
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