I was much surprised to find a biography on the Newbery list. My 6y4m son really has no idea who Louisa May Alcott is. but whether or not the reader recognizes Louisa as a real or fictional character, it is still a mildly interesting read. As far as following the life of a young girl in early America it is much like Caddie Woodlawn or Thimble Summer. Unfortunately, Ms. Meigs has such a dry style of writing that its about as exciting as reading a prospectus. I had to really focus and use inflection to keep the story even remotely interesting. Although i personally have never read any of Louisa May Alcott's books, at least none that I can recall, I've read several others from her era and was glad for an opportunity to expand my horizon a bit more and get some exposure to the famed Little Women author. So in the name of historical interest I was able to absorb the story, but don't look for me to become a Jeopardy! champion with any LMA questions.
The book begins at the beginning - with Louisa's birth. In the beginning there's not much of Louisa to tell but we do read a lot about her father, Bronson, who has a passion for teaching and some progressive ideas about communal living. "Although Bronson Alcott was unfortunate in never being understood by the many, he was singularly blessed by being understood by the distinguished few." (p. 12) There are plenty of tales and anecdotes from the first decade of her childhood including:
wandering off from home and through the streets of Boston
nearly drowning in Frog Pond
weekly pillow fights
Louisa is often compared to her sister, Anna, one year her elder. Anna is better at domesticity and Louisa is not the least bit inspired to compete in this arena. Her family supported freedom for slaves, appreciated the great literary authors of their time, and moved frequently - 29 times before she turned 29.
She wrote and produced a play in her early teens. She worked as a teacher, and other domestic jobs, partly because of her intensely strong desire to support her family. "One day there came to the house a gentleman in clerical garb who wished to consult Mrs. Alcott about finding a companion for his invalid sister. He wanted some 'ladylike young woman, who would read to her, perform a few light household duties, and be treated exactly like a member of the family.' ... There was nothing unusual in the errand of this stranger, except that the position he described seemed so marvelously easy and pleasant. ... // Louisa overheard him and was fired with enthusiasm. She would love to take the place herself. She was eighteen; ..." (p. 75) The job was not as it was represented so after a month she made to leave but the patient, whom Louisa felt sorry for, cried so Louisa stayed on three more weeks before finally putting her foot down - apparently Louisa was characteristically soft-hearted.
After that the family cobbled together small odd jobs to keep themselves afloat. Bronson went out on the lecture circuit after recovering from years of debilitating depression. During this time Louisa's writing career officially began with a publishing. She decided, in order to lessen the burden on her family and stir her creative juices - to move to her cousin's house in a nearby town. "No one will ever know how hard for Louisa were those first years of making her way alone. excessive shyness is not the best equipment for facing a strange and unreceptive world, in which the struggle for a living is already overcrowded. Louisa was not only shy but she was very sensitive, as all creative persons must be. To offset such handicaps she had only courage, unquenchable courage, which could usually laugh at hurt feelings and discomfitures and always rose from a fall to try again." (p. 85)
And so the book plods on, with a constant infusion of positively-spun insight into Louisa's personality traits.
On page 90 there are several references to mobs, hangings, runaway slaves and other related actions. There's nothing too detailed but its just so many in one page that it feels a bit heavy.
Within the next twenty pages the Civil War begins. There is such a strong sense of patriotism that permeated the community and inspired Louisa to take up work in a hospital. One of her patients was a twelve year old boy who was the drummer for a regiment. He became fond of a soldier who dies, leaving Billy quite traumatized and with nightmares. Louisa handles him gently, just as the other deaths and diseases are handled gently in this portion of the book. She was supposed to work at the hospital three months but became ill with typhoid after a month and, against her wishes, was returned home. However that one month proved very effective for her future writing career.
So many men came and went in this book I kept expecting a romantic interest for Louisa but, other than a passing crush, saw none. On page 151 it is explained:
Louisa Alcott had suitors during her varied life, that much we know. She even tells us of one whom she acquired at the age of fifteen, and of how she suddenly saw that he was sentimental and silly and lost her enthusiasm for him with great abruptness. She has been less frank about the others, so that who they were, and just what she thought of them, are secrets of her own which prying eyes have no right to investigate, not even in the name of her cherished fame.
it is said that at the time Anna was engaged, Louisa had an ardent suitor who urged marriage upon her. She had no feeling for him at all, but asked her mother whether she ought not to accept him for the sake of mending their family fortunes. Wise Abba Alcott persuaded her daughter out of any such romantic fancy of self-sacrifice, for what could be a more pathetic sight than independent, impatient Louisa married to a person for whom she did not care?
There are more details of a relationship in Europe that lasts for several pages, but all sounds very mild and appropriate (for the time).
The last thirty pages of the book move quickly. They are largely a timeline of her writing and also wrap up several threads of her life. The book ends with her death and a positive statement of how she achieved her deepest desires.
Anyone using this book for research will appreciate the chronology and index at the end.