Thursday, March 28, 2013

Louisa May's Battle: How the Civil War Led to Little Women

March 28 - Today's Post Contributed by The Fourth Musketeer

Louisa May Alcott is famous around the world as the author of Little Women, one of the most beloved works of literature for children, but what is less known is that she may never have had a career as a writer at all if not for her valiant service as a nurse during the Civil War.

It is this lesser-known part of Alcott's life that award-winning author Kathleen Krull concentrates on in her handsome new picture book about the iconic author, Louisa May's Battle:  How the Civil War Led to Little Women (Walker Books, 2013).  

Alcott came from a family of dedicated abolitionists, and longed to help the union effort in some concrete way.  Of course educated women from "good families" rarely worked outside the home in those days, but the Civil War gave some women the opportunity to work as nurses, provided they met the requirements:  at least thirty years old, "very plain," single, strong, and with two character references.  Alcott was able to meet all these standards, and soon was on a 500 mile long trip to Washington D. C., where she was assigned to work at a hospital--in reality an old hotel.  Her duties included shocking activities like undressing and bathing the men, bandaging wounds, and most importantly, keeping up the men's spirits.  

Krull describes how Louisa, after just a few weeks of nursing, became desperately ill with typhoid fever, and had to be taken home to recuperate.  While she did not return to nursing, she did return to her writing, which up until that time had been published but did not enjoy much success.

Krull's lively text is liberally sprinkled with quotes from Alcott's colorful and detailed letters home to her family.  These letters were published at the time in an abolitionist newspaper, and later as a book, Hospital Sketches.  This slim volume was her first to be published to critical acclaim.  As Krull points out, the book was Alcott's first to be published out of her own experience, and the success led directly to her being asked to write a "girls' book."  This, of course, proved to be Little Women, which was based on her own family and which she set during the  Civil War, one of the first novels to be set during the turbulent period which forever changed the United States.  The book became a huge hit, and led to a lucrative writing career for Alcott.  

Back matter includes a brief commentary on the early history of women in medicine, a map detailing the Battle of Fredericksburg and a brief description of this "nightmarish" battle, and a list of sources.  Among the sources listed are websites, children's books by Louisa May Alcott, and books about Alcott, including those for young people and for adults.  

Readers will enjoy the old-fashioned look of this large picture book, which is printed on ivory-colored antique style paper.  The illustrations by Carolyn Beccia, created with Corel Painter digital oils on gessoed canvas, also provide an old-fashioned feel.  Her paintings have a realistic yet statuesque quality, and are infused with earth tones that suggest the sepia photographs of the Civil War era.  In many of the illustrations, Louisa wears a red shawl that perhaps suggests the great bloodshed of the war and often provides the only spark of bright color.  Above, in one of the most striking illustrations, Louisa is in the process of writing Little Women, and imagines all the events of her life as a patchwork quilt.

I would highly recommend this new book to introduce young readers to Louisa May Alcott, either before or after reading one of her classics.  It's an inspiring look at a brave and talented woman, one who introduced strong female characters in her classic stories.  Of course, the book would also enhance a unit on women's history or the Civil War.

Margo Tanenbaum is proud to be working as a children's librarian in Southern California, where she loves nothing more than matching children with books whose stories they will treasure.  She blogs about historical fiction and history-related nonfiction for young people at The Fourth Musketeer, and is co-organizer of Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month.  You can also find her reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful review, Margo. Love what you do for Women's History Month.