Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante


I think that I fell in love with Eve LaPlante when I read American Jezebel perhaps last year or the year before. I thought that LaPlante was my type of historian - a feminist that delved into the women in America's history and then told their stories in a way that was accessible. But then I found out that not only did I love her books, but she is related to Louisa May Alcott - she is a cousin and her great great great grandfather, was Louisa May Alcott's uncle!! So, when I saw that she wrote a book about Louisa May Alcott, I was so excited and, after reading this book, I am convinced that I was Louisa May Alcott in a previous life (or, at the very least, I would totally have been friends with her if I lived when she did because she was awesome).

If you read the first of Alcott's works: Flower Fables, it is inscribed to her mother, Abigail May Alcott. That inscription states: “Whatever beauty or poetry is to be found in my little book is owing to your interest and encouragement of all my efforts from the first to the last.” It's so apparent that Abigail Alcott plays a prominent role in everything that her child did; however we know next to nothing about her and that should be disturbing. It's even more disturbing because it came to light that Louisa and her father burned her papers after her death in order to perhaps protect the families' privacy and also to protect what they believed was Abigail's straying from the script so to speak. It also has to do with the fact that nless yo were a woman like Loisa Alcott (i.e. exceptional in some way), many woman were (and are to some extent still) invisible. Their voices didn't mean mch at the time so the steps weren't taken to preserve the papers that they left.

However, there were a number of primary sources that Eve LaPlante, who is a descendant of Abigail's brother, uses magnificently to tell the story of a woman that was smart and creative but constrained by society. I found Abigail to be a fascinating woman. She was drawn more to the intellectual to the domestic, which often lead to much emotional suffering and misery on her part. She was a strident abolitionist and a feminist, who believed that all people (including slaves and her daughters) should be treated fairly and equally - which meant that they should be able to vote and work for wages outside of the home. Interestingly, she was of almost pure Boston Brahmn blood - with judges (one of whom was a judge responsible for the Salem witch trial and who publicly renounced his actions in Salme and one of whom was JOHN HANCOCK - how awesome?!). She met Bronson Alcott in 1827 and married, much to her dismay later on in life as Bronson was, apparently, the 19th century version of a deadbeat dad. Bronson was either indifferent to the suffering that his family underwent as the result of his inability to support them, or absent, or both. AS a result, in part of necessity, she sought and was often employed - usually as a landlady, seamstress or social worker.

Louisa was exposed to this mentor during her life. And it was apparent, and compellingly argued, that it was Abigail and not Bronson, who encouraged Louisa to become the wildly successful author that she was. Many of Louisa's notes in her journal talk about how she idolized her mother. The inscriptions in her book were mainly to her mother. Her mother often was the person that initially reviewed and edited her book. Abigail was the practical and emotional support to Louisa, while Bronson was the absent leech, for lack of a better description. The book was tremendously researched. It drew upon the words written by all of the main players - including Bronson and other people that Louisa interacted with. The use of primary sources has been unparalleled in the books that I've read, at least since I've been out of college. And the book was wonderfully written - it was a coherent and lyrical narrative of Alcott and her life.

I look forward to Eve LaPlante's next books because they are wonderful.

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