Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

By Kelly O’Connor McNees

New York, G P Putnam’s Sons, 2010

Week 37      Fiction

When I was a girl, my summer would begin with the intent to read all the young adult books in the Duluth Public Library. I would march into the library in June and begin at the As. Thus, I read all of Louisa May Alcott’s books every summer for several years. Frankly, I never got much beyond the As, but to my benefit, I read Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, and all the rest of the books in the Alcott lexicon several times over.

So, it was with a great deal of pleasure that I received a copy of the new book, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Conner McNees. Louisa May Alcott has always been a fascinating person to me—a woman author at a time when expectations for women were to be wives and mothers, hostesses and housekeepers. Additionally, I had studied the philosophy of transcendentalism in college and had visited Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and other sites famous to that movement when I lived in Boston. Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson appear as characters in this book, just as they were people much involved in the lives of the Bronson Alcott family. And Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass, is a pivotal plot device in the story line.

McNees does an excellent job creating the setting for the last summer of Louisa May Alcott’s youth—the summer before she became a full-time author. The reader gets a very real understanding for the family dynamics, and to a certain extent, its dysfunction. If you will remember, in Little Women, the women in the March family are alone because their father is away at the Civil War. Subsequent biographical information about Louisa May Alcott might indicate why he was perhaps conspicuous by his absence. McNees gives a clear picture of Bronson Alcott, a man who is no earthly good, caught as he is in a heavenly world of books and philosophy. Geraldine Brooks, who wrote a novel about him (March) called him “the most transcendent transcendentalist of all.” The family moved 20 times in 30 years because the bills didn’t get paid. Bronson didn’t believe that he needed to do worldly work. Abba Alcott, Marmie to her four daughters, was overworked and long-suffering. She doted on her third daughter, Elizabeth, who was frail, and depended upon her older daughters Anna and Louisa to do the work of the house along with her. Nothing much was expected of May the youngest daughter, who is portrayed as a young teenager.

The novel takes place during the summer Louisa is 22. The family has moved to Walpone, New Hampshire to a summer house lent to them by a relative. They are terribly poor, and the house is in great disrepair. Louisa had planned to only spend a few weeks helping the family get settled, but as the novel begins, it seems that she will be spending the entire summer helping out, much to her dismay. She has squirreled away some money from a couple of published stories with which she intends to move to Boston as soon as she can to be on her own. However, she is feeling extremely guilty because she has this saved money when the family doesn’t have enough money to function properly.

These facts are true; what McNees has done is to imagine what might have happened to Louisa and her sisters during that summer. Biographers have always speculated about Louisa’s love life or if she ever had one. McNees fills in that aspect of her life with a romance with a young merchant in the community. At the end of the summer, Louisa forsakes love, exerts her longed-for independence and moves to Boston, where fame and fortune awaited her. Throughout the novel, the expectations about the role of women are preeminent, and the struggle to be an independent woman plagues Louisa as she tries to find her place. Written from the perspective of the 21st century, one can only imagine what life must have been like for her, which is of course, what convinced the author that there was a story to be told.

The novel is very engaging and the plot is plausible, speculative though it may be. Like all good historical fiction, the setting and peripheral details feel authentic. McNees has done her homework, and I had to keep reminding myself that this is a novel. It has the feel of a biography. For example this short passage describes what it must have felt like to have been an Alcott, one of Bronson’s daughters. “But Alcotts did not succumb, no matter the burden. There might not be a thing to do except struggle to wobbly feet and stand in the torrent, but sometimes that was enough to wear the torrent down, to coax out its final pathetic gust. In the end, an Alcott, though raw, bruised and worn, was still standing.” In another passage, McNees illustrates the tension that appears to have been always under the surface in the household. Abba confronts her husband about the lack of food in the house. Abba is heard to say, “I do not see how working for bread implies unworthy gains.” Bronson replies, “Wife, I must be true to this philosophy, no matter what the cost.” To which Abba responds, “Give me one day of practical philosophy. It is worth a century of speculation and discussion.”

As a piece of historical fiction, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott fits well with other novels of the period. And it can take its place with dignity as a part of the lexicon of books by and about Louisa May Alcott. A visit to the website about the home Louisa owned as an adult shows this book as part of the literature connected with the house. The website also mentions a PBS documentary about the life of Louisa May Alcott that looks very appealing:

A quote from the review in the Washington Post:
“McNees gets the period details just right: the crinolines and carriages; the spare, aesthetic plainness of 19th-century New England. And although the love affair with Joseph is invented, she remains faithful to the broad outlines of Alcott’s biography. In fact, The Lost Summer is the kind of romantic tale to which Alcott herself was partial, one in which love is important but not a solution to life’s difficulties. Devotees of Little Women will flock to this story with pleasure.”

An interview on WGN Chicago:,0,4616791.mp3file

Here is the website for Kelly O’Connor McNees:

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