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But in this riveting dual biography, award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante explodes these myths, drawing from a trove of surprising new documents to show that it was Louisa's actual "Marmee," Abigail May Alcott, who formed the intellectual and emotional center of her world. Abigail, whose difficult life both inspired and served as a warning to her devoted daughters, pushed Louisa to excel at writing and to chase her unconventional dreams in a male-dominated world.
In "Marmee & Louisa, "LaPlante, Abigail's great-niece and Louisa's cousin, re-creates their shared story from diaries, letters, and personal papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and many others that were thought to have been destroyed. Here at last Abigail is revealed in her full complexity--long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure, she comes to life as a fascinating writer and thinker in her own right. A politically active feminist firebrand, she was a highly opinionated, passionate, ambitious woman who fought for universal civil rights, publicly advocating for abolition, women's suffrage, and other defin-ing moral struggles of her era.
In this groundbreaking work, LaPlante paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of a woman decades ahead of her time, and the fiercely independent daughter whose life was deeply entwined with her mother's dreams of freedom. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women is guaranteed to transform our view of one of America's most beloved authors.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-08-13
- Reviewer: Staff
In her compelling but ultimately disappointing dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, Abigail May Alcott, LaPlante (American Jezebel) admirably seeks to paint a fuller picture of Abigail and her role in Louisa’s life. Born into a prominent New England family in 1800, Abigail read widely as a child and, with the encouragement of her beloved older brother, Samuel Joseph, pursued an education; she would also follow his interest in reform movements, such as abolition. Though she originally favored the idea of teaching or writing over marriage, Abigail met “unconventional” teacher A. Bronson Alcott in 1827 and married him—a love match that quickly devolved into a peripatetic life of poverty. As their family grew to include four daughters, Abigail spent most of her time earning money and managing their household, while also fighting chronic illness. Louisa followed suit, though Abigail consistently encouraged her daughter to write as a means of expression. This turned into a vocation, and Louisa’s success with Little Women afforded the Alcotts their first taste of financial security. LaPlante allows her protagonists to speak for themselves through copious quotes from private journals and letters, though this doesn’t always lead to cogent storytelling. Nevertheless, the book is likely to spur further scholarship on the inspiration for the beloved “Marmee.” Agent: Lane Zachary, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. (Nov.)
Alcott women were anything but little
In one of the most disturbing scenes in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the saintly Marmee says to her daughter Jo, “I have been angry nearly every day of my life.” Eve LaPlante’s new biography of the “real” Marmee—Louisa’s mother, Abigail May Alcott—provides ample reason for her fictional counterpart’s daily rage.
LaPlante, herself a descendant from the Alcott family tree, traces Abigail May Alcott’s life from early childhood through death. We hear about Abigail’s relationships with her siblings, including her older brother, who would become a famous progressive (it is because of him that women were admitted into Cornell, for example). We learn about Abigail’s love of writing, her chronic bad health and her love match with philosopher A. Bronson Alcott. The last of these was, in LaPlante’s view, the cause of much of the trouble in Abigail’s life.
The Alcotts were perpetually in debt and moved more than 30 times. LaPlante’s chapter titles, often pulled from Abigail’s writing, reveal her subject’s despair: “Sacrifices Must Be Made,” “A Dead Decaying Thing,” “Left to Dig or Die.” Into this disheartening scene came Louisa, a daughter LaPlante convincingly argues had much in common with her beleaguered mother. Louisa vowed early on to become rich, pay off her family’s debts and give her mother a comfortable room. The strain between Louisa’s parents very much shaped her passion to write for money, which was why she wrote Little Women in the first place.
The narrative about Marmee’s life will be of interest to anyone who enjoys mother/daughter stories, American history or literary studies. Readers of the last category, however, may find that in fact, this “untold story” is already familiar, and may take issue with some of the author’s interpretations, particularly her obvious distaste for her subject’s husband. Still, the long and vital quotations from primary documents (some of them newly uncovered) and LaPlante’s careful research more than compensate for the book’s limitations. Especially as we move into the winter season, when many of us will cue our DVD players to the opening scene of Little Women, Marmee & Louisa is well worth a read.