Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante

If you grew up with Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys, you don’t need the subtitle of Marmee and Louisa to recognize the beloved author.  Once you have read this book, or listened to the audiobook as I did, you’ll realize you didn’t know Louisa as well as you thought.  Biographer Eve LaPlante is the great-niece of Louisa’s real Marmee, Abigail May Alcott, and she discovered in an attic previously unknown writings of May family members.  In Marmee and Louisa, published in 2012, LaPlante recreates the remarkable relationship of mother and daughter, drawing from an era when journals and letter-writing were a nearly daily occurrence—and far more descriptive than Facebook. 

It turns out that Louisa’s mother was a far greater influence on her than her better-known father, the idealistic transcendentalist Bronson Alcott.  LaPlante reveals the seeds of Abigail’s independence and social activism in her childhood as she pursued education on her own and blazed a new path as an early feminist and abolitionist—a path that later informed Louisa’s beliefs. Once Bronson Alcott entered the picture, Abigail’s life became more complicated, and her journals traced her joys and challenges as she raised four daughters, often serving as their sole support.  Abigail became one of the first paid social workers in Boston.

Though she depended upon Louisa to help hold the family together, Abigail always encouraged Louisa to do what she loved:  writing.  Sometimes Louisa shared her constant journaling with her mother, who commented on both the content and the writing.  Though many of their journals were destroyed, LaPlante pulls together a full and cohesive story with a cast of, if not thousands, many relatives and friends.  She shares how their lives intertwined with the Alcotts’, providing models and ideas for Louisa’s many books for children (which came about only after reams of bodice-rippers, essays, and adult novels sold over the years).  Through it all, Louisa both supported and drew strength from her own Marmee.

Virginia Beach Public Library carries Louisa May Alcott’s youth books, of course, but you can also find some of her lesser known stories for adults as Hoopla audiobooks or ebooks.  Some authors have created “fan fiction” take-offs on Louisa’s life—such as Michaela MacColl in The Revelation of Louisa May (ostensibly for teens), reviewed here.

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