Book Club: The Little Women Letters

It’s Sunday, so it must be Louisa time.

English: Image of American author Louisa May A...

I grabbed The Little Women Letters off of the “new books” shelf at the library. The modern cover with a bright turquoise background practically jumped off the rack at me, and it looked like an intriguing read.

Author Gabrielle Donnelly reframes the Little Women story by creating adult lives for Jo, Meg, and Amy March, a story discovered by one of Jo’s descendants and told through letters written by Jo. It’s a stretch for an Alcott historian, because for anyone who has read either Louisa May Alcott’s sequels to Little Women or anything about Louisa’s real life, Donnelly’s new vision of the adult March sisters doesn’t make much sense. In fact, in this picture, Little Women doesn’t even exist. I had to force myself to focus on Donnelly’s narrative and to try to disconnect from everything I know about Alcott’s writings beyond Little Women.

Once I got past the obvious continuity flaws, I enjoyed the book. Lulu Atwater, a direct descendant of Josephine March, lives in London with her two sisters and parents. Her mother, Fee, is a Bostonian who married an Englishman and left her New England roots behind. With her came family recipes and papers, including a set of letters written by Lulu’s great-great-grandmother, detailing the day-to-day thoughts and dreams of Jo March, including her excitement at meeting a certain interesting young German professor.

The Atwater sisters are obviously patterned after the March sisters and Fee Atwater provides a strong, nurturing center for the three young women who are finding their places in the world. As a tribute to the beloved Little Women, Gabrielle Donnelly has created a contemporary story of sisterhood, just as Louisa May Alcott did in her day.

For The Louisa Challenge, I’m reading An Old Fashioned Girl right now, and finding it fascinating to also compare it to its contemporary counterparts. I hope that you stop back next week to lend your voice to our study of Louisa May Alcott’s chick lit.

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The Louisa Challenge: Little Women

Illustration from: An Old-Fashioned Girl. By L...

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Welcome to the second installment of The Louisa Challenge where we read one Louisa May Alcott book every month and then discuss it. You can find the prompts here. If you wrote a post yourself, please link it up in your comments so that we can all read your work!

I was watching Midnight in Paris (for the fifth time) last night, and Woody Allen’s script calls for a character to say that Mark Twain is the father of the American novel. I’ll accept that, but I’d like to add a mother to the little family. I’d like to propose that Louisa May Alcott is the mother of the American chick-lit novel.

Louisa May Alcott has long been known as the forerunner of the Young Adult genre of authors we know today. In her time, her popularity was based on the fact that most other writers for children were moralizing and preachy. Her characters resonate with real-life drama — they don’t always behave well, they feel guilty when they misbehave, and they don’t always marry the man of their mama’s dreams.

Are Louisa’s string of novels the archetypes for such popular books as Lisi Harrison’s Clique series?  At first glance, one might be horrified at such a comparison, but let’s extrapolate, applying a little Midnight in Paris – style time travel. If Alcott were alive today, would she embrace Facebook and Twitter and use it for her characters to gossip about each other? She writes with an almost vicious delight at the “mean girl” antics of Meg’s friends and she gets even better at it in An Old-Fashioned Girl. They make the perfect foil for the March sisters who struggle to be “good” while also wanting to enjoy the good life. Only Beth seems immune to peer pressure, but then she doesn’t get out much.

How many times have you read a current novel in which the heroine realizes that the hunky bachelor, while providing social standing and sinful delight, is not the one to settle down with and marry?  Sometimes the heroine even passes off the hunky bachelor to a friend, and that relationship turns out to be a marriage made in heaven. Goodbye Laurie, hello Professor Bhaer.

I need to go on record here that I’m frequently appalled at a lot of what my students read today. I believe that constantly reading about the mean-girl phenomenon legitimizes its inevitability, even though many of the popular books do have heroines with a heart of gold who make the right choice in the end. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that in our drive to present young girls with realistic role-models, we’ve also given them permission to misbehave because “everyone does it.”

But let’s get back to that time travel thingey. Louisa as YA Queen. No wonder people came to her house in Concord and asked for locks of her hair. If she were a modern woman, would she also be appalled? After all, she often called her YA novels rubbish and was kind of embarrassed about them.

Can you see her on The View? What do you think?

P.S. I really struggled with writing to my own prompts, and thus found myself straying off-task. I hope you will forgive me, and I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say!

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My Book Club’s More Scintillating Than Your Book Club

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Thanks to a dear friend in my book club, I now have this magnet. It says it all.

Here’s a good idea to make your book club as scintillating as mine…

I started reading  In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011) by Eric Larson on my Kindle. It’s a thought-provoking book, but it took longer than the library’s allotted two weeks to read it. I’m getting back on the queue and the beauty of Kindle is that all my bookmarks, notes, and last page number will be there, waiting for me.


Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance–and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming–yet wholly sinister–Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

“Larson is a marvelous writer…superb at creating characters with a few short strokes.”—New York Times Book Review

I also have Good Christian Bitches on reserve for obvious reasons. With Kristin Chenoweth at the helm, how can ABC’s new show CGB be bad, even if the book is?

Hopefully, you are also continuing The Louisa Challenge and will be ready to talk Little Women on February 13. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

The Louisa Challenge: The Biographies

Welcome to the first installment of The Louisa Challenge. I hope that you will join us in our online salon as we examine the life and work of one of America’s most popular authors.

Scene from the 1994 movie adaptation of Little Women, starring Winona Ryder as Jo March. The women are reading a letter from their father and husband, Mr. March, who is serving in the Civil War.

According to Jessica of Scholastic, Little Women consistently comes up as a favorite book among people who follow the BookPull blog. The curators at Orchard House say that Alcott’s alter ego, Jo March, “was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality –a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.” According to this satirical web site, Little Women is also a book that makes you dumb — I just had to include it because it touched my funny bone to think of English majors going crazy analyzing whether or not the guy from Cal Tech had chosen the correct genre or not! And when you type in Louisa May Alcott on the search engine, you get 10,011 results. As a comparison, John F. Kennedy garners 63,000 hits, and Beverly Clearly only gets about 900. Louisa continues to be talked about and written about far beyond her relatively short period of fame in the second half of the 19th century.

The same scene from the 1949 version of the movie, starring June Allyson as Jo.

This month we are talking virtually about the Alcott family biographies, and there are lots of them! For those who haven’t quite had the time, the Library of Congress has published a simple biography of Louisa May Alcott with lots of related links. We may all want to bookmark this site as we go through the Alcott canon; it’s chock-full of interesting information and photos.

The challenge was to read at least one Alcott biography and respond to a prompt. I’ve chosen Prompt #1.

1. After reading an Alcott biography, how did you feel about the real Bronson Alcott?  How do you think his family and especially Louisa were affected by him? Are there fathers like him today?

Mr. March (Bronson Alcott) appears in Little Women as an almost mythical figure; at the beginning of the story he is off working as a chaplain in the Civil War and upon his return, he continues his ministerial work in a local church. As a role model for Josephine March and her sisters, their father is clearly not the driving force. They love him, they respect him, and they try to follow his teachings, but for day-to-day getting-it-done, Marmee makes things happen, not big daddy. It appears that Louisa May Alcott could not face representing her father realistically, but rather than be mean, she just made him disappear.

Based on all sources that I have read, it’s pretty clear that Amos Bronson Alcott was a dreamer, was unrealistic, and depended on others to keep him and his family from destitution. Yet, his personal magnetism and intellectual acuity convinced many people that he should be protected, honored, and saved from financial disaster. I’ve never been able to understand this.

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John Matteson says in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Eden’s Outcasts that “the world had no good yardstick for measuring Bronson Alcott. His inspirations seemed saintly to some and deluded to others.” He was a vegan before the word was even coined, and his vegetarian family wore linen shoes while pulling a plow attached to their shoulders through frozen ground at Fruitlands. He convinced them that it was not only unkind to the oxen to eat them or to use their hides for sturdy boots, it was a sin to ask the animals to labor for the humans’ sakes. Geraldine Brooks invents a fascinating backstory for March/Bronson in March, where March’s pride and faith are tested during his Civil War sojourn in the South, and he returns to his family a different and more humble father and husband. Unfortunately, that’s not what actually happened.

Given his successes and failures and emotional breakdowns, it’s hard to understand why Louisa and her father were somehow psychically joined at the hip. Like any daughter, she wanted her father’s approval, and he rarely gave it to her, despite that fact that for the last two decades of their lives, it was Louisa who kept the family out of the poorhouse. His Transcendentalist indoctrination was so strong that she struggled with her very normal desire to achieve fame and fortune; in Little Women we see Jo “trying to be good” all the time, when she is clearly an altruistic and caring person. Louisa basically was forced into writing not just one, but almost a dozen 19th century chick-lit YA novels that she hated to write, but which kept her parents, sisters, brother-in-law, and nieces and nephews fed, clothed, and housed.

I find it very interesting that Louisa managed to stay alive and making money for twenty years while dying a long slow death from fatal mercury poisoning. She didn’t give up until her father passed away in 1888; at age fifty-six, she died just two days after her father. For a woman who spent her entire life being the “man of the family,” Bronson Alcott’s death allowed her to finally stop caretaking and supporting her entire family. It’s pretty clear to me that Bronson’s irresponsibility — his Pied Piper nature combined with his total inability to sacrifice his principles for the people who loved him — made Louisa May Alcott the woman she became, and thankfully, we are the better for it. It’s a mixed blessing.

Now it’s your turn! What did you read and what do you want to tell the members of our Louisa Salon? Just link up or leave a comment. I can’t wait to hear what you think. Don’t forget to check back regularly for new comments and links and start reading Little Women. Our Louisa Salon meets again on February 13, 2012.

Your post and button will show up in a new page when you click on the froggie, and don’t forget to grab my button to link back to the Louisa Challenge page!

The Louisa Challenge: January Prompts

I got started on the Louisa May Alcott kick after reading Kelly O’Connor McNees’s The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. I blogged about it here, and suddenly had a group of people signing up to read Alcott’s body of work with me in 2012. That in itself was fabulous, but just as Louisa’s fame grew, so is momentum growing for The Louisa Challenge. I’m honored to have inspired these wonderful readers and writers to join me on a pilgrimage back to the American Renaissance and one of its most revered authors.

The rules are easy; read the book of the month and comment or link up your post. I’ll post prompts the previous week, but you’re not locked into anything. As Louisa herself said, “We all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving, and we all have the power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing.” I look forward to reading about your response to Louisa and her books.

The Louisa Challenge for January: thoughts after reading an Alcott biography

1. After reading an Alcott biography, how did you feel about the real Bronson Alcott?  How do you think his family and especially Louisa were affected by him? Are there fathers like him today?

2. Louisa May Alcott seems like a character who could be time-traveled to 2012 and still be successful. Why did Louisa need to protect her independence during her lifetime and how would she react to today’s complex and frenetic pace of life?

3. Did you know about Louisa’s relationships with the great American writers living in Concord along with the Alcotts? How did being a part of the informal writers’ colony that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller (as well as her father) affect Louisa?

4. Is there anything about Louisa’s life that really surprised you? What was it and why?

5. Which Alcott biographies have you read and which would you recommend to readers? Why or why not?

Watch for Mister Linky on Sunday, January 8. It’s going to be fun, friends!

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