Sunday, July 5, 2009

Better than Ice Cream

Some books are like bread and water, necessary for survival but without a satisfying flavor. Some books are like cod-liver oil, forced upon us by well-meaning parents. And some books are like ice cream sundaes with sprinkles and a cherry on top, so wonderful and delicious that we savor every spoonful until we are left with a sticky-sweet aftertaste that leave us craving more. Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs, the winner of the 1934 Newbery Medal, is a tasty treat for anyone whose life has been effected by Louisa May Alcott.

Written in a similar breathtaking style to Louisa May Alcott, Invincible Louisa goes behind the scenes with the Alcott family to draw parallels between Little Women and Alcott’s own life. I found myself constantly crying “I didn’t know that!” aloud as I read this biography, surprised by how many elements of her own life Louisa put into her novels. Like Jo, she had an older sister, Anna, and two younger sisters, Elizabeth and May. She captured the close relationship she maintained with her own family in her novels by including personal anecdotes like the theatricals in the attic, the works of the Pickwick Club, and the importance of the Pilgrim’s Progress. Louisa’s upbringing with the New England Transcendentalists clearly had much to do with the philosophies expressed by the March family. Great men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were close friends of the Alcott family, and stirred up questions and new ideas in Louisa’s mind. Louisa’s own moral compass, especially when it came to the controversial topic of abolition, steered true from her experiences with African Americans. As a toddler, a black boy who was passing by saved her from drowning, and this experience profoundly effected her. Her own home was used as a way station for the Underground Railroad, and she remembered vividly when she stumbled upon a runaway slave hiding in the oven. Louisa’s parents were idealists who acted as they believed, no matter the cost. Her parents’ advanced views about education and childrearing are evident in the incident with Amy and the limes. Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, was an educator who tried to develop a new system to teach children, maintaining that “children had minds and hearts and spirits of their own, and should have a voice in what was decided concerning them” (65). Creating Plumfield, the fictional school in Jo’s Boys, must be a tribute to her father’s lifetime of work in education. Alcott also plays tribute to her own sister, Elizabeth, as one of the most memorable characters in literature. I had no idea that like Jo, she nursed her own sister after a bout of scarlet fever, and sat with her as she passed into the next realm. Knowing that Beth was more than words on a page makes her death even more significant. Louisa bravely poured her own grief and loss onto the page for readers across the world to experience. Her stories remain just as relevant today as when she wrote them more than one hundred years ago, effecting new generations of readers in new ways. Invincible Louisa has added a new layer of to my understanding of the canon of Louisa’s work and reminded me that good writers must write from their own lives to touch others. In Louisa’s life there were many people that touched her and she has immortalized them in her fiction. Of course, a central part of Little Women is Jo’s relationship with Laurie, which Invincible Louisa addresses, but I can’t give away all the treats of this book. To find out who Laurie was, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

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