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Posts Tagged ‘Louisa May Alcott

If you are familiar with the name of Louisa May Alcott, you likely know her as the author of Little Women. You might also be familiar with the subsequent books about the March family–Good Wives, Jo’s Boys, Little Men–which are also based on Alcott’s life. You may not be aware, however, that Alcott wrote other children’s books, which eventually earned her the title in her lifetime of the “The Children’s Friend”. Nor may you be aware that Alcott’s first published book was a collection of fairy tales called Flower Fables.

Alcott first told her fanciful tales to Ellen, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and later wrote them down as a present. Feeling proud and excited, Alcott’s father brought his daughter’s tales to a local publisher. Advance copies of Alcott’s book came out in 1854, in time for her to give copies as Christmas gifts. One hundred and fifty years later, in 2004, the Orchard House published a commemorative edition to benefit preservation of the home where Alcott lived. This year, I picked up my very first copy while visiting the Orchard House.

I wish I could tell you that I loved Flower Fables, but for the most part I find it dated. By this, I don’t mean that Alcott described events which no longer hold relevance, portrayed ethnic groups or even genders in stereotyped ways, or applauded values that have gone out of style. Rather, I’m thinking instead of my husband’s reaction to Little Women. For the most part, besides finding Little Women very girlie with its references to balls, romance, and clothes, he thought it preachy and moralistic. While today’s readers might find that true to a certain extent, what saves Little Women is that it also has some of most memorable scenes and characters in children’s literature. The same can’t be said of Flower Fables, which means its didactic style is sure to bore today’s readers as much as or more than it did me.

My first impression of Flower Fables is it falls into the trap of some science fiction stories in considering that other beings are far superior in their care for each other and nature than humans. In one of my least favorite tales, Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land, Eva is transported into a beautiful and magical land where fairies diligently work to mend the broken petals and leaves of flowers and wings and legs of insects, all of which have been supposedly damaged by cruel human hands. The fairy band also ventured into the mortal world, where they “went among the poor and friendless, bringing pleasant dreams to the sick and old….” Should ever one of the creatures in fairy land fail to be perfect, others among them bring them back into “purity and peace” with “loving words and gentle teachings”.

My second impression of Flower Fables is that the task laid to those others is a darn difficult one. And herein is where I admit to semi-liking a few of the tales. Two which I particularly appreciated are The Frost King and Lily Bell and Thistledown. In the first story, Violet sets out to both love and fearlessly speak to the Frost King about his evil ways. He rejects her request and allows his frost spirits to bear her off to prison. Even when Violet turns her prison into a sunny and happy room, the Frost King scorns her kind offer of a golden mantle  that will bring him peace and love. Day after day, Violet remains steadfast, unwilling to give up her cause of bringing warmth to the rest of the flowers back home. In the second story, Lily Bell is good while Thistledown is bad. When Thistledown seeks shelter from stormy weather, he finds no one will let him near. This temporarily causes him to repent. As is the true nature of the wayward, however, it isn’t long before he becomes bored and resumes his destructive ways. When this betrayal causes a rift between him and best friend Lily Bell, Thistledown begins to rethink his life. Real change in personality can’t happen overnight; I appreciate that  Alcott is aware of this and so allows Thistledown to repeatedly fail in his goal to be good. Alcott’s more interesting tales remind me of Pilgrim’s Progress, in their awareness of the fallibility of man. While that classic also at times feels dated, I still enjoy revisiting it on occasion; Christian’s pilgrimage feels realistic and therefore inspiring, as do some of the stories in Flower Fables.

I’d be amiss if I neglected to also applaud the last story in Flower Fables. Being about a water-spirit, instead of about fairies or elves, Ripple is unique. Its message of keeping promises also felt like a fresh change from the endless admonishments to be good. Ripple comes across a mother who has lost her child to a storm. Longing to comfort her, she promises to find a way to rescue the boy. Little does she know the cost of keeping this promise. As with her awareness of the fallibility of mankind, Alcott also seems to understand how deeply one might have to sacrifice for love. Perhaps, in this truth, Alcott drew upon her own life’s experiences, for she spent the bulk of her life doing just this for her family.

Although I can’t recommend Flower Fables to a general audience, I do encourage avid fans of Alcott to read it at least once. Moreover, I now feel an inkling to reread Alcott’s lesser known classics: such as Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and Under the Lilac Tree.

What books beyond Little Women have you read by Alcott? What were your impressions?

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

“Jo’s book was the pride of her heart, and was regarded by her family as a literary sprout of great promise. It was only half a dozen little fairy tales, but Jo had worked over them patiently, putting her whole heart into her work, hoping to make them good enough to print.”–about Jo March of Little Women

New England is a boon for literary enthusiasts. So many famous authors and poets have lived there! When I realized that my husband and I would have opportunity to stop there, I immediately scouted out author sites. Concord, Massachusetts in particular was home to four great authors–including Louisa May Alcott, most famous for her book Little Women.


The earliest to open, Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery takes less than fifteen minutes to walk. When my husband and I first arrived, we had no idea where to go. Driving around we came across what appeared to be an information center but turned out to be someone’s home. Fortunately, some helpful workers at Sleepy Hollow provided us with a map. We trekked up a hill to see graves of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and of course Louisa May Alcott. At all of them, visitors had left pens, coins, and messages. Along the edge of the cemetery, we also had the fortune to see a swamp!


All day, rain and closures plagued our literary stops. Thankfully, the Orchard House was open. After snapping quick photos outside, my husband and I hurried inside, just in time for a tour.

It starts with an educational video that is shown in the Alcott studio. Then our guide took our large group from room to room, providing further explanation along the way about the Alcotts. For example, the father was a leader of educational reform. The mother was a social worker. As for the four girls, I found of most interest the room of Louisa, for this is where she wrote her beloved classic, Little Women in 1868 at a “shelf desk” her father built for her. Of equal fascination were the drawings on the walls, which were created by the youngest sister.

Open throughout the year except on major holidays, the Orchard House looks much the same as it did in the Alcotts’ day. Care has been taken to keep structural preservation work invisible. The rooms are supposed to look the same as when the Alcotts were in residence. Moreover, the furniture is original to the mid-nineteenth century, with seventy-five percent belonging to the family.

After moving twenty-two times in nearly thirty years, the Alcotts finally found their most permanent home at Orchard House. Alcott’s father originally purchased two houses set upon twelve acres of land on the Lexington Road. He then moved the smaller tenant farmhouse to adjoin the rear of the larger manor house, making a single larger structure. The grounds also contained an orchard of forty apple trees. Hence, the name “Orchard House”.

Flash photography is not allowed, but you can click below for virtual tours:

Growing up, I studied the inside jacket blurbs of books to learn everything I could about an author. If the bios provided were too short, I sought one in an encyclopedia. These days, I lean more towards online articles or even full-length autobiographies. This fanatical attraction of mine to authors might have something to do with my dream to be one. As such, you might not share the same interest.Yet many online readers do like to know about authors for the same reason many movie viewers like to hear commentaries. Authors can provide insight into how a novel came to fruition, along with how they feel about their characters and how they established their settings, and perhaps even provide trivial details about their story. It’s also just fun and fascinating to find out more about the person who wrote the story that I just finished. For all those reasons, I eagerly await the day when novels come packed with special features the way DVDS do. In the meantime, I enjoy researching into author biographies to provide you with some tidbits of info about the novelists whose books I feature.For my next review, I will feature a round-up of beloved books from childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer. During the week itself, I will post mini-biographies of the authors of those novels. Save the date of my round-up: August 14!

Author #1: What famous writer resisted a publisher request, because she did not think she could write an interesting story for girls?

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 18...
Image via Wikipedia

In eighteen sixty-eight, a Boston publisher asked the struggling young to write a book for books, because it would have widespread appeal. He was right. When Alcott eventually decided to try, the result was the instantly success and now beloved classic Little Women.Read more of her biography at the Louisa May Alcott website. There, you can also see a photo of the home where Little Women was penned, read information about how to take a tour of the historic Orchard House, and purchase merchandise related to Little Women. Teachers can find educational programs and study kits.If you feel ready to test your knowledge of Louise May Alcott and her book Little Women, check out these quizzes from The Literature Network:

Author #2: Where was Eleanor Cameron born?Canada! Now although Eleanor Cameron was born in Canada, she lived most of her life in California. Her parents moved to Berkeley early in her life. She then lived in Los Angeles until she married Ian Cameron. They moved to Pacific Grove, where she lived for the rest of her life. For some reason, I thought she was British. Ah well.

Eleanor Cameron

Image via Wikipedia

Eleanor Cameron is known best for two sets, one being the Mushroom Planet books. Even as a child, I did not readily take to science fiction. So, this is not her favorite set of mine. Yet having learned of the origin, I am intrigued to reread them. Apparently, one day her son David, an avid Doctor Dolittle fan stood at the side of her table and told her what he had dreamed of: a story about himself and his closest friend, and how they would build a little spaceship and go off and find a planet just their size, just about big enough to explore in a day or two. And so, at her son’s request, the five Mushroom Planet books were born.It surprised me just as much to learn that Cameron was in her sixties when she began writing realistic fiction. One of the results, the Julia Redfern books, are among my favorite books for they featured an aspiring adolescent writer. Cameron’s last children’s novel, the final book in the Redfern series, was finished when she was seventy-seven. You can read an extensive biography of Cameron at Old Children’s Books and my review of one of the Julia Redfern books here on Sunday.

Louise Fitzhugh

Image via Wikipedia

Author #3: What author received criticism for her book about a rude and opinionated heroine who also carried a notebook with her everywhere?In 1964, Louise Fitzhugh published her first novel: Harriet the Spy. She was an only child. Her parents divorced soon after her birth and her father won complete custody, on the grounds that her mother was unfit. Biographies about Fitzhugh suggest that the loneliness of her youth influenced her writings. Her life was unusual in other ways too. For example, she attended an all girls’ school and later three universities, without obtaining a degree. Although she was married briefly, she dated girls after high school and wrote a book about two adolescent girls who fall in love. While this manuscript was rejected, Harriet the Spy became a classic. After only a handful of picture books and novels, Fitzhugh died in her forties of a brain aneurysm. For more info on Harriet the Spy, check out the tribute Purple Socks site.Author #4: Who won a Newbery Honor for her book about the Civil War?Irene Hunt! I couldn’t find much about her except that, after she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she worked as a teacher. A number of authors seemed to have this background. Hunt taught French and English in the Illinois public schools and later psychology at the University of South Dakota. She retired from teaching in 1969.Growing up, she loved to listen to the stories that her grandfather told of his childhood during the Civil War. From these stories came her first novel, Across Five Aprils. It was named a Newbery Honor book in 1965. Only two years later, she received a Newbery Medal for Up a Road Slowly. One of my favorite books from childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer, I’m still looking for information regards its origin.Author #5: Who is a famous literary orphan?

Lucy Maud Montgomery ca 1920 – 1930

Image via Wikipedia

Anne of Green Gables! The inspiration for Anne came from a scrap of paper that Lucy Maud Montgomery kept from a young age, describing a couple that were mistakenly sent an orphan girl instead of a boy but had decided to keep her. Montgomery used a photograph of Evelyn Nesbit from New York’s Metropolitan Magazine as the model for the face of Anne. In also drawing upon her childhood experiences growing rural Prince Edward Island in writing Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery made Prince Edward Island famous across the world. Since its publication, Anne of Green Gableshas sold more than 50 million copies.When Montgomery was only two years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Stricken with grief over his wife’s death, Hugh Montgomery gave custody of Montgomery to her grandparents and eventually moved out West to Saskatchewan. Montgomery grew up with her strict and conservative grandparents in Cavendish. Montgomery credits this lonely time of her life, in which she created many imaginary friends and places to cope with loneliness, as what developed her creative mind.Following the completion of her grade school education, she attended Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. Completing a two-year program there in one year, she obtained her teaching certificate. Upon later leaving Dalhousie, where she studied literature, Montgomery worked as a teacher in various island schools. She also began to have short stories published in various magazines and newspapers. A prolific writer, Montgomery had over one hundred of her stories published from 1897 to 1907 inclusive. The following year, she published her first book: Anne of Green Gables.An avid fan of Montgomery’s novels, most of her life story is familiar to me. When reading recent biographies, however, I discovered that Montgomery underwent several periods of depression during her adult years while trying to cope with the duties of motherhood and church life, her husband’s attacks of melancholia and deteriorating health, and expensive lawsuits with her publisher. Truly, for much of her life, writing was her one great solace. You can read more about this troubled but beloved author at the Lucy Maud Montgomery Institute website.Author #6: What author survived a near-paralyzing struggle with polio in his teens?


Image by fatedsnowfox via Flickr

Sterling North! Born ina farmhouse on the shores of Lake Koshkonong, North grew to young adulthood in the quiet southern Wisconsin village of Edgerton. When North was eleven, several of his uncles wrote extended biographies about their parents and their pioneer farm life. This writing effort occurred at the same time as the setting of Rascal and may have been inspiration to North who often drew upon his own life for his books.After graduating from Edgerton High School, North began his writing career. He wrote for The Chicago Daily News, The New York World-Telegram and Sun, and for many magazines. North’s most famous work, Rascal, received several awards including the Newbery Honor. It was also made into a Disney movie.Additionally, it was made into a 52-episode Japanese anime entitled “Araiguma Rasukara”. Rascal’s popularity led to many Japanese children requesting raccoons as pets. Japan became such a big buyer of raccoons that North American raccoons are now a serious alien pest in Japan.You can read a fuller biography about Sterling North at the Sterling North Society. The society also features tours and related merchandise. To read more about Rascal’s popularity in Japan, check out: Go Jefferson. The page also provides photos and related trivia.

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