“I am not afraid of storms because I am learning to sail my own ship.” — Louisa May Alcott
When I grew up in the 1970’s I saw the practical side of feminism every day. My mom was single mother struggling to support us. She taught herself computer programming to do it. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I understood how she had juggled bills, work, parenting – all without ever letting the strain show. I admire her immensely. That is the lens that I always use when I look at my characters: what were their moms like?
My latest literary mystery, THE REVELATION OF LOUISA MAY (Chronicle 2015), is about Louisa May Alcott as a teen in Concord Massachusetts. The author of LITTLE WOMEN, a dozen spin-off novels and hundreds of “blood and thunder” stories, she was tremendously successful writer. By the end of her life she was a millionaire and she earned every dime from her pen. Louisa was very close to her mother, Marmee, and her three sisters. If that sounds familiar, you’re right. LITTLE WOMEN was based on Louisa’s childhood, with the enthusiastic permission of her family.
But the Alcotts had it much worse off than the Marches. While fictional Jo totally ruins an ambitious dinner menu, Louisa suffered actual hunger. Jo’s father is off at war but Louisa’s was Bronson Alcott, a philosopher who was philosophically opposed to working for a living. By the time Louisa was a teen, they had exhausted the generosity of their friends and family. Marmee became an expert at scrimping, saving, sewing and doing without. Desperate to feed and clothe her family, Marmee did the unthinkable for a family of their social status: she left town and got a job.
She was hired to run a therapeutic hotel in New Hampshire. Her husband was livid. Who would take care of him? Since the oldest daughter was working as a teacher far from home, that duty fell hard on Louisa’s shoulders. Neither she nor Bronson were happy about it. She hated the daily grind of poverty and incredibly disciplined herself, she found fault with her father’s lack of work ethic. They clashed all summer until Marmee, missing her family terribly, returned. This is when my story is set because I loved all the drama between Louisa and Bronson (also, if Louisa is to hide a fugitive slave, fall in love and catch a murderer…. Marmee can’t be around- she’d never allow it!)
Marmee had always supported Louisa’s love of writing and gave her a journal and a fine pen. She inscribed the journal: “I am sure your life has many fine passages well worth recording, and to me they are always precious… do write a little each day, dear, if but a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when victory is nobly won.”
Louisa responded by telling her mother “I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me.” She wrote for money to help her mother and take care of her family. She began with gothic stories, written under a pseudonym (they are still discovering her stories), until her publisher came to her with the wacky idea of writing for girls. She was reluctant but the money offered was good. Plus, she kept the copyright. To everyone’s surprise, LITTLE WOMEN was a huge bestseller. It made her fortune and whenever she needed more money she just churned out another one! She often said she would prefer to write more lurid stories, but they weren’t what would sell. When her oldest sister, Anne (Meg in the novel) lost her husband, leaving her with two small boys, Louisa wrote JO’S BOYS and assigned the royalties to her nephews. She took care of her entire family, ensuring that Marmee lived her last years in opulent comfort. Marmee taught her well.
THE REVELATION OF LOUISA MAY hits the shelves on April 9th.
Michaela Maccoll’s favorite stories are the ones she finds about the childhood experiences of famous people. She is writing a literary mystery series for teens featuring so far a young Emily Dickinson in NOBODY’S SECRET (2013) and the Bronte sisters in ALWAYS EMILY (2014). She lives in Westport, CT with her husband, two teenaged daughters and three extremely large cats.