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  • Louisa May Alcott

  • The Woman Behind Little Women
  • By: Harriet Reisen
  • Narrated by: Harriet Reisen
  • Length: 12 hrs and 51 mins
  • 4.0 out of 5 stars (111 ratings)

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Louisa May Alcott

By: Harriet Reisen
Narrated by: Harriet Reisen
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Publisher's summary

Louisa May Alcott portrays a writer as worthy of interest in her own right as her most famous character, Jo March, and addresses all aspects of Alcott's life: the effect of her father's self-indulgent utopian schemes; her family's chronic economic difficulties and frequent uprootings; her experience as a nurse in the Civil War; and the loss of her health and frequent recourse to opiates in search of relief from migraines, insomnia, and symptomatic pain.

Stories and details culled from Alcott's journals; her equally rich letters to family, friends, publishers, and admiring readers; and the correspondence, journals, and recollections of her family, friends, and famous contemporaries provide the basis for this lively account of the author's classic rags-to-riches tale. Alcott would become the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime based on the astounding sales of her books, leaving contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry James in the dust. This biography explores Alcott's life in the context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. A fresh, modern take on this remarkable and prolific writer, who secretly authored pulp fiction, harbored radical abolitionist views, and completed heroic service as a Civil War nurse, Louisa May Alcott is also the story of how the all-time beloved American classic Little Women came to be. This revelatory portrait will present the popular author as she was and as she has never been seen before.

In the new biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, author and narrator Harriet Reisen writes not of the genteel, fictional March family, but of the impoverished, activist Alcotts and their obstreperous daughter who would become a world-renowned author.

Reisen begins by noting her fascination with all things Alcott, having spent much of her adult years researching the notable author, writing and producing various works about Louisa May and family. Reisen’s reading of the text is suitable to the subject matter, capturing Louisa May’s tone — from girlish euphoria to gossipy social commentary to curmudgeonly irritation. The Alcotts were lifelong abolitionists whose family friends included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dorothea Dix, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Louisa May Alcott wrote poetry, short stories, plays, reportage, and children’s books. Reisen’s fascinating detail about Alcott’s success at gritty pulp fiction illustrates Louisa May’s ability to adapt her talent to what would sell. Under the pseudonym “A.M. Barnard”, Louisa enthusiastically wrote of the seamy, taboo topics that were supposedly unknown to women of polite society. Louisa’s lurid fiction paid the family bills from her late teens until the success of Little Women; yet until recently the connection between Alcott and Barnard was not known. Reisen’s narration is especially fun as she relates the story of two rare book dealers (both women, both devout Alcott fans) who were finally able to link lusty author “A.M. Barnard” to the paragon of family devotion, Louisa May Alcott.

When Bronson Alcott encouraged Louisa to write a story based on her own childhood, Louisa was slowly recovering from typhoid contracted while nursing Union soldiers. Little Women was a publishing phenomenon. Louisa May Alcott’s only literary rival at the time — in popularity and in book sales — was Mark Twain.

At the height of her literary popularity, nearly 50 years old and in declining health, Louisa set aside writing to raise the infant daughter of her sister, May, who had died in childbirth. You can hear the excitement in Reisen’s voice as she relates her own part in discovering and publicizing notes from the 1976 interviews with May’s daughter Lulu, the last remaining person alive who had known Louisa May Alcott. The interview with 96-year-old Lulu Nieriker Rassim had been only partially written about, had never published, and had gone missing after the death of author and Alcott scholar Madelon Bedell. In a moment of serendipity, a letter dropped from a used copy of Bedell’s book that Reisen was perusing. The paper contained clues that led to the recovery of the interview notes, which are now joyfully shared with Reisen’s listeners. —Carole Chouinard

©2009 Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter (P)2009 Tantor

Critic reviews

"A deliciously palatable biography of the iconic writer." ( Kirkus)

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