Wednesday, May 05, 2010

161 (2010 #26). The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

by Kelly O'Connor McNees

Growing up, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was probably my favorite book. I read it over and over, as well as its sequels Little Men and Jo's Boys, and every other book Alcott wrote for young people. Although I've yet to read a biography of Alcott (Cornelia Meigs' 1934 Newbery winner, Invincible Louisa, is in my TBR pile), I know enough about the author's life to know that the March family in Little Women is based on Louisa's own family of origin.

So I was quite excited to receive an advance edition of this book of speculative historical fiction about Alcott from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. McNees has taken the summer of 1855, which the Alcotts spent in Walpole, New Hampshire, and used the lack of information in Alcott's own letters and journals (as well as other sources) about what happened that summer to create this fictional account of a romance between Louisa and Joseph -- who might have been the inspiration for Laurie, the young man originally in love with Jo (alias Louisa) in Little Women.

In an author's note, McNees relates a quote from the memoir of Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne and a neighbor and friend of the Alcotts. Of Louisa, he asked, "Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew. Yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic, and passionate escape it?" McNees thought,
That's it. I knew biographers believed that her fame drove her to burn many of her letters in an attempt to protect her privacy. It wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine that perhaps she did have a love affair but erased all traces of it. But when would it have happened? I remembered a short section from one of the biographies that mentioned the Alcotts summering in Walpole, New Hampshire, in 1855. Only a few solid facts are known about that summer--her father Bronson kept a garden, the sisters put on a play, and in the fall, Louisa went off to Boston to write and Anna [her older sister] went to Syracuse to work in an asylum. The lack of historical information made it the perfect setting for the story: a lost summer in Louisa's life.
McNees added many period details to add to the authenticity of her setting, and cleverly uses quotes from Louisa's books and other writings to introduce each chapter. She does an especially good job bringing Louisa's father Bronson (the mostly absent Mr. March in Little Women) to life, with all his beliefs and eccentricities that caused hardship for his wife and four daughters.

This book reminds me a lot of Alice I Have Been, and like that book (and all good historical fiction), has inspired me to read more about Louisa May Alcott. While the story here is somewhat predictable for anyone who knows something about her, it's still an enjoyable read for her fans.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]