Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Books Received: "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women"

Admit it: if you’re a woman reading this writing-related blog, at some point in your life, you wanted to be Little Women's Jo March. I think she may have been one of the first women writer role models I encountered in the wide swath of my childhood reading. While I may have been disappointed by her choice in men (Professor Bauer? Really?)—and Jo’s ultimate decision to spend her life running a boys’ school (in Little Men), I was delighted to see a woman writing and getting published. Even if she didn’t value her “scribbling,” I did, and I’m pretty sure I never could have forgiven Amy for burning my manuscript in an act of revenge.

So naturally, I was delighted to get a copy of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but this blurb is quite promising, especially coming at this book as I do—a person who doesn’t typically pick up biographies:

“This juicy bio is a page-turner.” ~ Good Housekeeping

And, from another, very different source, another promise that my initial interest in Jo March is not misguided:

“As Harriet Reisen’s enchanting biography reminds us, Alcott patterned the March family on her own and Jo on herself…[Her life] is richly examined in Ms. Reisen’s full and vivid portrait.” ~ Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal

Like any good book, a random page flip should reveal something of interest, and I ended up in a boatload of conflict on page 203, with Louisa returning from a trip to Europe to discover that her family in dire financial straits:

“Orchard House [the family home] was no doubt home to a large pile of unpaid bills. On top of their usual indigence, Louisa was unpleasantly surprised to discover that her parents had lied about the five hundred dollars that had underwritten her eight weeks’ independent exploration of Europe. She should have known there was no four-hundred-dollar windfall from Bronson’s speaking tour; actually there was a three-hundred-dollar loan he was unlikely to pay back without her help. Within the week she was churning out stories to patch the hold in the family coffers.

Hating “debt more than the devil,” at a speed perhaps only Trollope would match, Louisa turned out two stories for Frank Leslie at one hundred dollars per, and supplied James Elliott of the Flag of Our Union with a novella and one of her best thrillers. ‘Behind a Mask or A Woman’s Power’ was a subversive variation on Jane Eyre

“Louisa kept up a phenomenal pace for six months, writing up to fourteen hours a day.”

And just to show us that Louisa May Alcott was human and was a writer through and through, here’s this tidbit about Little Women from page 1: Alcott thought that the book was “lifeless and flat as she was writing it.”

Author Harriet Reisen also wrote the PBS American Masters film about Alcott, which will be aired on December 28, 2009. Details here.

You can read the first chapter of the book here.

Also, check out the preface, where Reisen talks about her love of Alcott’s work and the tense negotiations over gaining access to some long-lost Alcott papers.

And, of course, information on buying the book is here.

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: I received a copy of this book from the publishers. But, obviously, given my love of Little Women, I jumped at the chance and am pretty sure anyone else would.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.