The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
by Kelly O'Connor McNees
Louisa, a budding writer, wants more than anything to move to Boston and support herself writing fiction in the flourishing literary scene. Family loyalty prevents her from doing so; her father Bronson Alcott refuses to work for money lest it interfere with his great philosophical ideas, leaving his wife and daughters constantly struggling to make ends meet. Thus, when the family is forced to move to Walpole, New Hampshire to live in a house belonging to a wealthy relative, Louisa reluctantly accompanies them. As she and her sisters settle into their new home, they begin to make friends amongst the young people of the town. A young shopkeeper, Joseph Singer, astounds Louisa with his flirtatious behavior, but his flippant facade masks an intellectual mind as keen as her own. With Joseph, she is able to discuss drama and literature, including a scandalous new collection of poems by Walt Whitman, only recently published. Louisa's yearning to leave and begin her life in Boston clashes with her heart, and even her fervent imagination cannot help her resolve the struggle between independence and love.
Louisa May Alcott's best known novel is Little Women, a story loosely based on Alcott's own experiences growing up. Knowing this, author Kelly O'Connor McNees patterned the personalities of Alcott's sisters off the characters in the novel, and those familiar with Little Women will recognize them immediately. Events in Walpole often mirror the coming-of-age stories of the fictional family as well. As I read, I wasn't sure whether to attribute this as a tribute to Alcott's creation, a plausible extrapolation of history, or laziness on O'Connor McNees' part. I've decided, after finishing the book, that the decision to include so many parallel universe-type stories in the narrative was meant lovingly, as a tribute to Alcott's life and most famous work.
I did find it a little amusing that Louisa May Alcott apparently destroyed parts of her diaries and letters in order to keep aspects of her life private from a ravenous press and obsessive fans, and as a result fiction like The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is written to fill in the gaps. Kelly O'Connor McNees definitely did her research – a list of sources is included at the back of the book – so she is able to convincingly bring to life America in the decade preceding the Civil War.
One of the things I found most interesting about the book was Louisa's dislike of marriage, because it was so heavily influenced by what she saw in her parents' relationship. In Louisa's eyes, her mother, fondly nicknamed Abba by her family, was little more than a servant to her careless dreamer of a father. While he spent his days experimenting with impractical ideas and his extremely liberal philosophy – at one point he apparently proposes an 'open marriage' to his infuriated wife – Abba toiled day and night to keep her children fed and clothed. The inequality and repulsion Louisa feels at the reality of her parents' “partnership” makes her fierce independence later in life more understandable within the context of her society, which didn't take kindly to unmarried spinsters.
Given that Little Women is one of the most widely read books by young girls in America, I think a lot of teens and women would enjoy reading this book. It stirs up fond memories of the classic while creating an adult story exploring the conflict between career/family that troubles so many women today. It'd be especially great for book clubs, I think, and would encourage a lot of discussion.
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