Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen, Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 302 pp
After a slow start, this biography of Louisa May Alcott became great. Her early life was comparable to the childhoods of hippie kids from the 1960s and 1970s. The family moved constantly, were always broke and in debt to friends and extended family. Mr Alcott was a dreamer, impractical and chronically unable to make a living. He started several schools but they all failed as the Puritan families of the day found his methods much too progressive. Alcott's educational ideas reminded me of Summerhill by A S Neill and the ideas I had about schools back in my twenties.
Harriet Reisen clearly loved her subject. Her excellent research and wonderful writing brought Louisa May to life for me. She was an intrepid woman and determined to take on the role of providing for her family through her writing. She wrote in many genres before Little Women, lurid sensational tales for magazines, as she trained herself to write for money. But it was Little Women that made her famous and rich.
The second half of the book flew by like a pageturner. Louisa's conflicts between caring for her parents and sisters while craving personal freedom touched me deeply. Though she never married, she had all the responsibilities of a mother, wife, sister and breadwinner without the passion or love of a man. Reisen describes her relationships with Emerson, Thoreau and many of the Transcendentalists, but the relationship with her mother was the most interesting to me.
This is truly a woman's book for strong, independent, artistic women. It will hold up as a definitive biography of the woman who gave me one of my favorite childhood books.
(Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)