Becoming Little Women:

Louisa May at Fruitlands!
Putnam, 2001

I saw the old movie of Little Women on television before I read the book, and my sister, two friends, and I sometimes dressed up in my grandmother’s old dresses and played that we were the four sisters in the novel. My sister was oldest (and, of course, the bossiest), so she claimed the role of the literary tomboy, Jo March. I was happy enough to be Amy, unbothered by my sister’s remarks that I messed up words as much as Amy did. That seemed pretty picky, considering that I got to be the prettiest, best-dressed sister.
By the time I read Little Women, I’d become at least as interested in books as clothing, and while I still liked blond, artistic Amy, I connected more with Jo’s writing and wish for independence. The spirit of Jo and Louisa May Alcott stayed with me through college, where I majored in English, and then while I took part-time jobs that weren’t particularly satisfying but paid the rent and left me time to write. Eventually I had enough of jobs behind counters, started teaching high school, then got married and had a child.

One afternoon I drove on the highway near Fruitlands, which I’d visited as a girl, and began thinking about the differences between the family shown in Louisa Alcott’s best-selling novel and what was known about the communal life at Fruitlands. I’d been having a bad day, but that changed as my mind brimmed with questions about what it must have been like to wear tunics and trousers when every other girl wore ankle-length dresses. What was it like to grow up with not only three sisters, but with a boy Louisa’s age and men who included one who didn’t speak and another who thought conventional speech and clothing hampered his freedom?

Back at home, I read Transcendental Wild Oats, a story which Louisa based on her family’s life at Fruitlands. Thirty years had passed, and Louisa chose to emphasize the humor that rose from the contrast between what people said and what they did. She used satire and sentiment to keep herself distant from moments that were surely painful, and the children, including herself, are mentioned but not shown or even given names.
I also read sections from the journal Louisa began keeping at Fruitlands. These gave important hints about her life, but it’s clear she left out a lot. The diary of her older sister, Anna, is longer, but the pages from the fall and winter have been cut out, presumably by their father, who didn’t want to confront the memories they evoked. Their father claimed to have lost the diaries he kept from 1843-1844, but he wrote about some of his experiences elsewhere. I read the journal Louisa’s mother kept at Fruitlands, and the diaries and letters of visitors, but while these accounts answered some questions, they raised others. I learned how the men argued about what they should eat, how they should farm, and what sort of clothing, if any, should be worn, but what I really wanted to know was what life was like for the young people who had no choice but to live in this “utopia.” They were barely mentioned.

I wrote Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands to answer my own questions about this crucial time in Louisa’s life. Documents gave me an outline of events, but to explore people’s feelings, I chose to read between the lines. I sat quietly with sentences that Louisa wrote and envisioned where she might have sat, what she might have felt, and what she thought she shouldn’t say in the journals that would be read by her parents and perhaps others. Fact and fiction blended as I developed scenes based on summaries of events and wrote dialogue inspired by the voices left in diaries and letters.
As I learned more about the poverty and hunger Louisa endured, and her life with an eccentric, often depressed father, I admired her more than ever. In Becoming Little Women, I hope to share my sense of an extraordinary girl whose imagination, anger, and love were shaped in a rather peculiar world.

Web-sites where you learn more about Louisa May Alcott and some of the places where she lived.

Fruitlands Museums
Harvard, Massachusetts
This site will let you see some of the views Louisa had when she lived at Fruitlands, and how the house where she lived looks now. The Museum of the New England Landscape includes buildings that have been moved or built on the property during the past century, including a Shaker museum, an art museum, and a building with displays of Native American art and artifacts.

The Orchard House
399 Lexington Rd. Concord, Massachusetts
After several years of often moving around, Louisa and her family settled in Orchard House, which became Louisa’s most beloved and long-lasting home. At this web-site you can view rooms on-line and learn more about the house where Louisa’s creative spirit is kept alive with tours led by knowledgeable and good-humored guides, workshops, and lectures. My favorite parts are the semi-circular desk between two windows where Louisa wrote Little Women and the drawings on the walls done by Louisa’s sister, May.

A review of "Becoming Little Women" from Horn Book:
All eleven-year-old Louisa May wants is a happy family. That goal becomes increasingly difficult at Fruitlands, the farm her father brings the family to in order to realize his utopian goal of living in harmony with nature and with one another... Louisa adores and wishes to please her father; she loves and suffers for her mother's many selfless hardships. Louisa's salvation is her journal, on which Atkins bases much of this well-researched historical novel. But salvation also lies in Louisa's temperament-she will not be patient like her good mother and sisters, who ask only for better faith. She will stand up for her father's noble ideas, and she will stand up to her father's foolishness. Atkins offers a trustworthy dose of reality for future readers of Little Women who may believe there is only romance in Louisa's story of "becoming little women."
Copyright © 2001 The Horn Book, Inc. All rights reserved.

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