Print Friendly and PDF With Strings Attached: Newbery Reviews: biography and almost-biography

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Newbery Reviews: biography and almost-biography

By Cornelia Meigs

I confess:  I have never read Little Women.    I was given An Old-Fashioned Girl when I was eight. It was too hard for me and I didn’t get through it.    Had I gotten LW instead I would surely have become an LMA devotee.   However, I am an LMA fan. She lived during my favorite historical period and place: mid-19th century New England.  Because of, or in spite of, her unorthodox upbringing she determinedly “paddled her own canoe” (p. 94).

Cornelia Meigs’ 1933 Newbery-winning biography, Invincible Louisa, is about the Alcott family as much as it is about Louisa.   It took me couple of chapters  to get into the rhythm of Meigs’ style. The sentences are long, comma-filled, and convoluted. (“Two years they had lived in the pleasant, square, farmhouse-like dwelling…”)

Louisa became a writer to support her family.   “Whatever it was, she was going to be it with all her might….She saw plainly that her father…had very little real knowledge of the jostling world about him, that her mother was worn and worried over the problems of living…The way in which Louisa adored them all, as the years passed, could never be put into words—the way she loved them and intended to take care of them….One of the most interesting tales in the world is the record of how resolutely Louisa kept that promise….”

 Bronson Alcott was brilliant and impractical --  “a strange, interesting, rather marvelous figure . . .a student, a scholar, and most of all a teacher, to the last depths of his nature.”  Abigail “Abba” May was devoted, patient, and long-suffering.  “She knew that he needed somebody to take care of him as he furthered his great ideas. Joyfully she undertook to be that person….unquestioning and ungrudging in the outpouring of her strength….”   The four Alcott daughters were Margaret, Louisa, Elizabeth, and Anna, immortalized as Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.   The family moved often as Bronson started a school, then tried a commune (Fruitlands, near Harvard, MA), and eventually settled in Concord when Ralph Waldo Emerson befriended them.  Both Bronson and Abba were generous to a fault. (Meigs recounts a story of the winter when the Alcotts were too poor to lay in firewood. A friend delivered a load of wood as a gift.  An indigent came to the door and Bronson gave him the firewood. Another friend, not knowing about the first gift, came to the Alcotts’ with another load.)

Louisa's first story was published in 1852,  followed in by a story collection in 1855. From December, 1862, to January, 1863, she was a volunteer nurse at a military hospital in Georgetown. She caught typhoid fever and returned to Boston.   Her short experience was enough for a series of “Hospital Sketches,” published first in a magazine and then as a book.

In 1868 publisher Thomas Niles asked if she would write “a book for girls.” She wrote Little Women in three months. It was published that October.  Its success led to seven other children’s novels and assured her place in literary history.  (“A completely fresh story it was to them, a book even of a different kind from anything they had read before, a book just about themselves, or so it seemed, by someone who understood them completely.”)   

Meigs’ biography has more intellectual heft to it than “series” biographies for kids (e.g. Childhood of Famous Americans).  For an up-to-date study, I would read Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, and watch Reisen’s  documentary film of the same title.

By Ruth Sawyer

What a delightful book! 

In “189__” Mr. and Mrs. Wyman went to Italy for his importing business and for her health.  Aunt Emily thought that 10-year-old Lucinda should live with her and Uncle Earle and their four daughters to ensure that Lucinda would be exposed “to the social training and behavior demanded in a daughter of a family of our position.”  Fortunately for Lucinda, her parents arranged for her to live with the Misses Peters, one teacher at Lucinda’s school and the other a seamstress.

Lucinda is a delightfully irrepressible girl (“headstrong, far too independent, and outspoken,” according to Aunt Emily).  She zips around the neighborhood on roller skates. 

She is obviously a child of privilege – an Irish nursemaid, private school, summers in Maine. (Her allowance of $1/week would be $25 nowadays.)  But she is kind and generous to everyone, if rather bossy.  She makes friends with the Irish hansom cab driver, the Irish beat cop, the Italian greengrocer and his son, and the rag-and-bone-man, as well as the boarders at the Misses Peters’ lodging.  Her New York is far from the impoverished immigrants crowded in   tenements on the Lower East Side, but it’s not all paradise.    There is a murder, and Lucinda discovers the body. A child dies, despite Lucinda’s enlistment of the family doctor.  

Lucinda stages “Twelfth Night” for her friends and cousins. “There was one terrible moment in which the audience nearly brought an end to the performance…Uncle Earle made booming sounds like a muffled drum, and Mr. Night Owl started to whoop with laughter…Two or three of the ladies gave little gasps…It happened when Lucinda sang the song of the drunken butler because she thought it has such a lovely swing to it.”   The verse:  “None of us cared for Kate / For she had a tongue with a tang/ She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch / Yet a sailor might scratch her wher’er she did itch / Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang!”   
Afterward Uncle Earle whispered, “The song of the drunken butler—out it goes. You’re not to sing it again.” “But Uncle Earle, it’s an elegant song.” “For a drunken butler, perhaps, but not for you. I’d have given a guinea to have had your Aunt Emily here tonight and seen her face when you sang it.”
Ruth Sawyer

I’m sure that scene has gone right over the heads of the hundreds (thousands?) of children who have read Roller Skates over the last 78 years!  I wonder if any adults have objected to that scene, or to the murder or the death.  

Ruth Sawyer was a noted storyteller and children's literature expert.  How much of Roller Skates really happened to Ruth Sawyer?  The Wikipedia entry  hints at it, and the Lucinda depicted by illustrator Valenti Angelo
certainly looks like Sawyer. 

I look forward to reading the sequel, The Year of Jubilo


  1. Your thoughts about the questionable song in Roller Skates going over young readers' heads was in line with my thoughts about another book this week. I've been looking for recs for my 11-yr-old GD, a voracious reader who is preoccupied with syfy fantasy. I loved Paul Gallico books, especially Love of Seven Dolls -- worthy of a whole box of tissues. When I recently read a synopsis, it referenced a rape scene which apparently went completely over my head as a naïve teenage girl! Guess I'll hold off on recommending it ....

  2. Enjoyed your blog and book reviews.Thanks for sharing

  3. Ruth Sawyer (Durant) was an alumna initiate of Alpha Xi Delta.


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