The story begins in 1881 with Louisa, a recognizable figure by now thanks to Little Women and Little Men, boarding the Boston train for Bellows Falls, Vermont, where she would then rent a Rockaway to travel the rest of the way to Walpole, New Hampshire. She is travelling to meet with Joseph Singer to try to persuade him to destroy letters written by her that tell about the summer of 1855 — a story she would prefer not become public after her death, an event which she feels is not too far off. McNee then proceeds to tell us the story of that summer.
It is the summer of the publishing of Walt Whitman‘s Leaves of Grass, and thanks to a father who is a philosopher, the Alcott family is familiar with Thoreau and Emerson and other Transcendentalists and Louisa will read Whitman’s tome and be highly impacted by it. Also thanks to a father who is a philosopher, the Alcott family finds themselves living in Walpole, NH on the generosity of family in a rambling house called Yellow Wood with scarcely the where-with-all to feed and clothe themselves. Anna & Louisa share the attic room and six dresses between them and, although they have so little, they still must make extra candles for the poor when they make them for their own family. Still, the family manages somehow to live in harmony with only a few altercations where Marmee implores Bronson to take a job to feed his family.
The son of the proprietor of Singer’s Dry Goods, Joseph, sets his cap for the 22-year-old Louisa, unaware that she has sworn to make her own way in the world and never marry. The rest of the family (except for the father who is absent in the war) is pretty similar to the March family of Little Women. If Alcott based her stories on her own family experiences, then it shouldn’t be surprising that this fictional biography should seem based on Little Women. Louisa herself is the “Jo” from the story and her sister Lizzie is “Beth”. Joseph, of course, is Lawrence.
It is a summer when the girls are falling in love, a young man is building his own house with the help of his friends, the young people put on a theatre production, and the circus comes to a nearby town. There are those who marry for love and those who marry to save the family finances or honour, and there are those who go their own way.
This is the first novel by Kelly O’Connor McNees and she appears to have done a great deal of research through Louisa May Alcott’s journals and letters. I suppose it is inevitable that the story should sound like Little Women and it does. The chapters are introduced by quotes from Alcott’s own works and from the philosophers of the day. It was a simpler time when hardship went hand in hand with love and laughter. While I found it an interesting read, it kind of fell flat for me. Not sure what I was expecting. I’d look at other books she has written but this one was a bit disappointing. * * *