Review: Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother

Review by Kim Loomis-Bennettuntold-story-lousia-may-alcott cover

Untold stories bring the past into the present. An irresistible attraction for those of us who are attracted to biographies and historical stories is that historical stories have a beginning, middle and end. The entire trajectory of an individual’s life is accessible in a way that our own life stories are not. There is comfort in closure as we hear the forgotten or ignored story of an ancestor.

Bringing the past into the present in such a way that the past lives again, is Eve LaPlante’s talent. The author of previous nonfiction works, such as Salem Witch Judge, offers readers entrance into the little know life of Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Abigail and her relationship with her famous daughter.

Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (368 pages, Free Press, 2012) and LaPlante’s companion text, My Heart Is Boundless: Writings of Abigal May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother  (250 pages, Free Press, 2012) both include meticulously researched and primary material. Besides writing a dual biography of her ancestors, it is also fascinating to note that LaPlante is the great-niece of Abigail and cousin to Louisa. When we learn that Abigail was also a writer and preserved to win the vote for women, Abigail is revealed to be self-effacing: “. . .even if they succeeded, [the vote] would not benefit her. But [the vote] could benefit her daughters . . .” LaPlante, by incorporating the writings of Abigail with skillful descriptions of 1830s–1850s America, brings Abigail out of obscurity so that readers get to know her as a remarkable woman in her own right.

There are seventeen chapters that explore how much the real life relationships in the Alcott household influenced the writing of Little Women. But the real treasure of this biography is meeting Abigail and her fierce protectiveness of her children. Because Bronson Alcott was not an adequate provider, Abigail, at the age of fifty, had to find work, though that was nothing new for her. Her employment at a spa in western Maine proved unsuitable because of the unsavory environment and even more painful, she could not have her children with her due to “spa employees engaged in inappropriate behavior. . .with patrons of the baths.”

LaPlante’s rendering of Abigail’s life, a struggle to balance financial survival with appropriate work, voting rights, better pay, health concerns and still aim to be the best mother possible were Abigail’s lifetime concerns. Women today can identify with Abigail’s intelligent and heartbreaking quest to better her and her children’s lives. Louisa, like her mother, felt disappointed about being a woman in an unequal world. The bonds of mother and daughter offered essential solace.

Marmee & Louisa is a biography that would appeal to literary historians, writers interested in learning how to bring the past alive in their fictional works, but even more so, those readers who are interested in the lost or hidden stories in their own families; readers who ask questions like LaPlante and are willing to objectively explore the more painful experiences of their ancestors. Readers of historical fiction will find that reading Abigail’s journal entries and letters in My Heart Is Boundless allows them to hear the voice of a complex, and now unforgettable, voice from the past.

Hippocampus Rating: Five of five stars

Kim Loomis-Bennett, Reviewer

Kim Loomis Bennett is a life-long resident of Washington state, besides a detour into Oregon where she met her husband. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in The November 3rd Club, The Copperfield Review, Poet’s Quarterly and Hippocampus Magazine. Recent work is included in The Prose-Poem Project and The Far Field. She has served as poetry editor for River and South Review. Kim also teaches part-time at Centralia College. She has an MFA from Wilkes University. Her work, Soiled Doves: A Poetic Sequence, published in 2011, is available as an ebook.

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  • Susan Bailey

    I very much enjoyed this book and especially reading Abba’s own words. She was a colorful writer with much passion. My only quibble with the book though is that it seemed that LaPlante would not give Bronson Alcott an inch. Every time it seemed he would take a positive step forward, she would then send him three steps backwards. Because of her blood relation to Abba, I can certainly understand that she would feel fiercely protective of Abba and Abba suffered a lot with Bronson through her life. But Abba chose to remain with Bronson (and not just because divorce left women with nothing, including taking away the rights to their children) and she often defended him. She did love him – she loved and defended the ideal that she saw in him and chaffed much against the very flawed man that he was. Bronson was very complex with amazing courage and the fatal flaw of naricissism. The very thing that Abba loved about him, his strict adherence to his principals, was also the thing that placed the family in such poverty.

    Abba’s legacy is her amazing daughters, all of them. One chose a traditional path (Anna), one died young but with grace and courage, and the other two because modern career women with wonderful achievements. Abba Alcott was an amazing woman, worthy of the study that LaPlante’s books provide.