Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
by Harriet Reisen

Picador, 2010. ISBN 978-0-312-65887-8.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 02/14/2011

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Writing a book about a famous person is an exercise in bravery. This remarkable biography of Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen took courage.

Well-written, erudite and scholarly, Reisen's book is honest in its depiction of this beloved author, and a compelling read because of that honesty. While most fans of Little Women are aware of the similarities between the character of Jo and the author, Reisen takes a deeper and more introspective look at the Alcott family, and that family's influence on Louisa's writings.

The years of poverty and struggle left their mark on Miss Alcott, and her willingness to seek out employment in writing pulp fiction, over-the-top adventure stories, and lurid romance gives honor to her attempt to care for her family. Reading Reisin's book will give the Alcott fan a great look at the life that shaped the woman. The book tells us much more than is commonly known about her Civil War years as a nurse, and the influence of her father, which led to her feminism, her abolitionism, her poetry, and her philanthropies.

The complicated character that was Louisa May Alcott is delineated here, and we are enriched by knowing that this difficult woman was able to reach inside herself and pull out eight wonderful children's tales that continue to be residents on the shelves of children today.

In some ways, this is a difficult book to read. Miss Alcott had a tough time of it, and the glories of Little Women and its sequels came at a profound cost. On the other hand, the book is encouraging and energizing, for in reading it, we come to understand Alcott's determination, faith in herself, and love of family which gives her motivation to forge a body of literary work that resonates with us in modern times. Knowing about Alcott's life and her experiences, gives us courage to go forward in our own small ways to make a difference.

Harriet Reisen, a former fellow in screenwriting at the American Film Institute, has written dramatic and historical documentary scripts for PBS and HBO, including the PBS documentary, based on this book, of Louisa May Alcott. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Tony Kahn, and son Andrew Kahn. This is her first book.

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