The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT by Kelly O’Connor McNees
1. Have you ever read a poem or book that profoundly challenged or changed your worldview? How might the events of the novel have differed if Walt Whitman had not published Leaves of Grass in the summer of 1855?
2. What is Louisa’s relationship like with each of her sisters? Do any of these relationships change throughout the novel? If so, how? Do you think Louisa’s identity was defined by her sisters?
3. Abba says that men and women experience love differently: “For a man, love is just a season. For a woman it is the whole of the year.” Is that true in The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott? Is it true in your own personal experience?
4. Bronson Alcott was a truly unusual father and man. What is your impression of him? How do you think he affected his daughters, and did he affect each one differently?
5. Describe Bronson and Abba’s marriage. Do you think it influenced Louisa’s view of matrimony? If so, in what way?
6. Was Louisa right not to go with Joseph Singer to New York? Why or why not? What would you have done?
7. Why was Louisa so protective of her independence? Considering the greater opportunities available to women now, but also the frenetic pace of their lives and, in some ways, more complex obligations, do you think she would be as protective of her independence if she lived today?
8. At one point Abba tells Louisa, “We must never give if we are hoping for something in return.” Why does she say that? Do you think what she says is true?
9. At the end of the novel we learn that Louisa is taking care of her niece Lulu. What kind of parent do you think Louisa would be, and why?
10. Louisa tells Joseph, “My life is no longer my own.” And yet she chose to base Little Women, her most successful novel, on herself and her sisters. If writers use their own experiences as inspiration, are they inviting fans to pry into their personal lives? Or should their work be taken at face value?
An interview with Kelly O’Connor McNees about the novel
What was your first experience with Louisa May Alcott’s work?
I honestly can’t remember when I first read Little Women. It seems like I have always known the story. More vivid is the experience of rereading the novel over the years and that delicious moment of recognition; coming back to it feels like bumping into an old friend. It’s always as wonderful as I remembered it, though, of course, the way I think about the story has changed over time. As an adult I see the March sisters differently, and I think about Marmee’s role in the story much more than I ever did.
Later, when I began to read about Louisa May Alcott’s life, I learned that Little Women wasn’t really the kind of book she wanted to write. While it made her famous and very rich, the book’s success meant that her publishers didn’t want her to write anything other than what she called “moral pap for the young.” She gave her publishers what they wanted in Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, Jack and Jill, and other books and stories. But, true to form, Louisa also went right on doing what Louisa wanted to do, writing thrillers like A Long Fatal Love Chase (which remained unpublished until 1995) and Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power, written under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I relied on biographies of the Alcott family and the remarkable cast of characters living in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid–nineteenth century, including Hawthorne, Thoreau, Fuller, and Emerson. Louisa came to life for me in her letters and journals, as well as in her fiction. I also had the good fortune to visit Walpole, New Hampshire, in August 2008. A few key reference books provided details about clothing, food, architecture, and transportation.
All of these titles are included in the note on sources at the back of the book. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott is fiction, and—for better or worse—the characters and story are my own creation. But I used the work of various historians as I put the novel together, and it was important to me to credit their work.
Also, I experienced the singular joy of reading Leaves of Grass with my eyes wide open. In the first edition, the poems were unnamed; my favorite lines are from what is now called “Song of Myself,” the first and most famous poem in the volume: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” Whitman has a way of making you pay attention.
Joseph Singer is a fictional character in a novel populated with many historical figures. How did you devise his character? Is he based on someone you know?
When I tried to imagine Joseph, I started with Laurie from Little Women and worked backward. If Louisa had based Laurie on a real person, what would that person have been like? And how would his life have differed from Laurie’s? Laurie came from money. Would Joseph have come from money?
I knew Louisa would dislike Joseph at first, for she would sense immediately that he represented a threat to her plans to stay independent. She would assume he was frivolous and a flirt because he was charming, and so his intelligence would take her by surprise. Of course, his interest in Leaves of Grass made him very difficult to resist, but the most important thing was that he was not intimidated by her. Many men would have found Louisa’s ambition and autonomy threatening, but not Joseph. He understood this independent spirit was the essence of who she was. I think we fall in love with the person who sees the best version of who we are, then spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to it.
Both you and Louisa May Alcott are female writers. Do you feel a kinship to her? Would your writing process have been different if the subject had been a man, or a person who didn’t feel compelled to write?
I do feel a strong kinship with Louisa, and especially with her struggle to protect her independence. This is something I think a lot about in my own life, the idea of what independence means. Contemporary life presents women with many more choices than Louisa had, and yet many women today feel their hearts and minds are just as divided, if not more so, among competing spheres of love, work, parenthood, passions, laundry, and more. Are we better off now? Of course we are. Read Louisa’s Hospital Sketches, about a Civil War hospital in the time before anesthesia, if you doubt it. Are we happier now that we have all this choice? I don’t know.
Obviously my novel is a love story, but I hope people will see it also as a story about self-determination—the freedom to construct a particular kind of life. We take that concept for granted now, even tend to think it’s not all that important, since we can claim it whenever we want and at the same time undermine it by blaming others for the state of our lives. But self-determination, for a woman living in 1855, was a radical and, in Louisa’s case, defining ideal. And Louisa was willing to sacrifice a lot to get it; she was under no illusion that she was entitled to “have it all.”
I also just plain admire her. She was an incredibly resolute person: She never gave up, despite poverty, illness, discouragement, anger, and endless housework. She strained the muscles in her right hand severely by writing for hours on end. At that point, most of us would have taken a break, but she simply trained herself to write with her left hand. That’s the kind of person she was.
Presuming to see the world through another person’s eyes—even when that person is a fictional character—is always a risk. If I write about a character with whom I have some things in common, I risk imposing too much of myself on her. If I write about a character who is nothing like me and I don’t take the time to understand him, I might miscalculate his thoughts or motivations or actions, and then he wouldn’t ring true for the reader. All you can do as a writer is take your responsibility to your characters seriously and do the work of getting to know who they are.
Did anything surprise you, did anything surprising happen, during the course of writing The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott?
When I started work on this project, I had imagined a totally different kind of novel, one that included contemporary characters—the flashbacks to Louisa’s story made up only a small part. I had the whole thing outlined. I had color-coordinated note cards for each scene in the two different time periods: green for the historical scenes and purple for the contemporary. After a few months of working on the first draft, I found myself lingering over the historical flashbacks, which weren’t supposed to be very long or important to the story, and dreading the contemporary scenes, which were supposed to be the engine of the plot. My contemporary protagonist started to seem like one of those friends you want to break up with, the one who is a half-hour late to everything or who constantly asks you to go shopping when she knows you’re broke, and you hope maybe you’ll suddenly move away or die so you’ll never have to see her again.
But being the structured, controlling person that I am, I felt I could not violate the sanctity of those note cards. I forced myself to keep going until I was so unhappy with the book that I threw in the towel for a while. For three weeks straight all I did was cook soup—leek and potato, butternut squash, chicken stew, bean and bacon—and buy the sorts of vegetables I never buy, just to see if I could figure out what to do with them. I actually made dandelion green fettuccini from scratch. The freezer was soon full, so I had to start giving food away. If a friend stopped by, I might foist something mysterious on her, like a gallon of puréed sweet potatoes. “You can use it in muffins!” I would exclaim, and she would pat my arm like a nice nurse might, in an asylum.
And the whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about Louisa, how much of a connection I felt with her, what a shame it was that I wasn’t going to be able to write about her. I had done so much research on her life but had relegated her to a small corner of the book. And then it dawned on me: I could change the book. (It must sound like I’m pretty slow on the uptake.) I could change it so that the whole book was historical, the whole book was just about Louisa. I took a deep breath, cut 120 pages from the draft, all the contemporary scenes, and though I wouldn’t say it was smooth sailing from then on, I knew I was on the right track.
This question was about what surprised me. What surprised me was that trying to control it didn’t work. Controlling people are always surprised by this fact, and we have to learn it over and over again every day.