Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands

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. I usually got the role of Amy, but by the time I read the book, 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 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. What was it 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 novella which Louisa May Alcott based on her family’s life at Fruitlands thirty years before. She used satire and sentiment to keep herself distant from moments that had surely been painful. 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 at the farm have been cut out, presumably by their father, who didn’t want to confront the memories they evoked. Bronson Alcott 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.

To learn more about Louisa May Alcott and some of the places where she lived please visit
Fruitlands Museums. This site will let you see some of the views Louisa had when she lived at Fruitlands, and how the house 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.

After years of many moves, Louisa and her family settled in The Orchard House, which became Louisa’s most beloved and long-lasting home. At this website you can view rooms online and learn more about the house where Louisa’s creative spirit is kept alive with tours led by knowledgeable and good-humored guides.

For background and a review of Becoming Little Women, please visit Louisa May Alcott is my Passion.

Books on the back shelf are available in libraries, through dealers of used books, or may be found at Amazon.com.


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