Louisa May: The World and Works of Louisa May Alcott Hardcover – Dec 1991
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From School Library Journal
Grade 6 Up-- Johnston combines recent scholarship and her own reading and experience to present a fresh look at the author of the beloved Little Women . The highlights of Alcott's life are familiar. One of several daughters born to an impoverished educational visionary, she turned her hand to sewing, teaching, nursing, and finally writing to help support her struggling family. Johnston attempts to round out this picture, to balance the well-known influence Bronson Alcott had on his daughter with that of her mother and her own development as a creative individual. In so doing she presents Alcott as a richer, more complex figure, whose relevance to readers is undiminished by the passage of time. Instead of an old-fashioned sentimentalist, Alcott comes across as a woman of talent, strength, passion, and perserverance. The author sets her agenda in an introductory note, and then goes on to support her text with a wealth of primary and secondary sources, one as recent as 1991. The bibliography is annotated, although, except for Meigs's classic Invincible Louisa (Scholastic, 1988), the citations are all of adult titles. Fans of Little Women will need little urging to read this biography, and even less to move on from it to other Alcott titles. Solidly researched, well written, respectful of readers, this will be a major addition to biography shelves. --Barbara Hutcheson, Greater Victoria Public Library, B.C., Canada
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
An author of over 60 YA novels brings fine narrative skill to a sympathetic portrait of one of her greatest predecessors. Much has been added to the record since the 1933 publication of Meigs's well-researched but traditional biography, the Newbery-winning Invincible Louisa. Alcott's letters and journals, several collections of the ``thrillers'' that kept the family pot boiling, and a novel whose genesis was ruefully described in Little Women have been recently published; scholarly studies point out the extent to which the author's autobiographical fiction was an unrealistic reformulation of a difficult life and of a gifted but impossible family (especially her improvident philosopher father). Johnston, bless her, succeeds in reconciling the loving family in Little Women with the facts of Alcott's rich but extraordinarily demanding life. She posits that, though Bronson Alcott was indeed a remarkably innovative educator as well as an eminent scholar, it was her mother, Abba May Alcott, who most profoundly influenced Louisa. Pioneer social worker and sometimes, of necessity, family breadwinner, she was, like Louisa, an outstandingly courageous, independent, yet nurturing woman, deeply loved though not so unrealistically patient as ``Marmee.'' Good as it was, Meigs's book seemed colorless compared to Alcott's fiction. Johnston--by depicting the real life in all its complexity while showing the many links with the fiction--not only enriches understanding of Alcott's books but also paints a fascinating picture of her life. A must. Bibliography; photos and index not seen. (Biography. 12+) -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832 to a freethinking teacher, Bronson Alcott, and a Boston blueblood, Abigail May Alcott. Although Abigail (known as Abba) came from a wealthy family, she received little inheritance, and her family soon grew tired of bailing out Bronson from his financial problems. For much of Louisa's early childhood, the family lived in abject poverty. Both parents worked in the abolition movement and in other attempts at social reform. Their friends included many famous transcendentalist thinkers of the day, such as Emerson and Thoreau. Johnston briefly describes transcendentalism, but not in enough detail that the reader will wind up with a lasting understanding of this nature-based philosophy.
Sections of this biography dealing with Bronson's unconventional teaching ideas and techniques and his struggles to maintain a teaching post were perhaps the most fascinating. The most recent film adaptation of "Little Women" alludes to some of these problems when one of Meg's society friends comments that her father's school had to close because he admitted a black girl as a student. "Louisa May" provides a few further details on this incident, which actually occurred, noting that the child may have been the daughter of free blacks who knew the Alcotts through the abolition work. Bronson also found himself out of a teaching job for focusing on philosophy rather than the three Rs, including sex education in his curriculum, and preaching his own religious beliefs to his students.
While Bronson's educational approach cost him jobs in America, a book published by his assistant made him famous in England. Following a visit to that country, he returned to Massachusetts with several like-minded hangers-on and decided to found a utopian farm. Charles Lane, his chief ally in this effort, encouraged Bronson to a life of abstinence. Lane's monk-like approach to life included rigid lessons for the Alcott girls, meals consisting mostly of bread, potatoes, and water eaten without plates (the Alcotts already were vegetarians), and ultimately an attempt to separate Bronson from his family.
Johnston's description of how Abba managed to turn things around for the family is inspiring and contradicts stereotypes that many have about 19th century women's submissiveness to their husbands. Reading "Louisa May" left me longing for more information about Bronson and Abba Alcott, and their unconventional lives.
Like Jo in "Little Women," Louisa sought to help support her family as she got older. She did sewing, cleaned houses, taught children and, despite discouraging publishers, sold short stories. When the Civil War broke out, Louisa volunteered as a nurse. Her nursing experience proved pivotal in her life in several ways: "Hospital Sketches," based on her letters home, established her as a writer. Her hard work as a nurse, however, destroyed her health. Although not clear from "Louisa May," Louisa worked only three weeks as a nurse before going home sick.
The sections about her writing her famous children's books are less fascinating than the chapters on her early life, perhaps because it's hard to read about Louisa's struggles with poor health. At this point, Johnston briefly describes the plots, mentions which publisher the book was written for, and a few other details about what was going on in Louisa's life during its writing. Johnston could have given better context to Louisa's financial success. Stating that she earned $1,000 a year seems like an improvement over the $30 a year the family struggled to survive on during her childhood, but for readers unfamiliar with mid-19th century wages, it would be hard to see this sum as representing financial security.
I was surprised at how quickly I read "Louisa May." It had sat on my shelf for years before I finally picked it up, and then I read it practically nonstop. My primary disappointment was its lack of footnotes and its lack of a broader bibliography. I wanted to know more and I wanted Johnston's help in pointing me in that direction. Then I noticed that the biography was written for "11 & Up" and understood. I certainly didn't get the impression from the writing style, that the book was geared to younger readers.
Overall, I enjoyed "Louisa May" very much, and have new respect for her as an independent woman who set out to accomplish goals and lead a life that would have been somewhat unusual for women in her day-and did everything she set out to do!