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Marmee & Louisa

Marmee & Louisa

The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother

  • reading group guide
Louisa May Alcott was one of the most successful and bestselling authors of her day, earning more than any of her male contemporaries. Her classic Little Women has been a mainstay of American literature since its release nearly 150 years ago, as Jo March and her calm, beloved “Marmee” have shaped and inspired generations of young women. Biographers have consistently attributed Louisa’s uncommon success to her father, Bronson Alcott, assuming that this outspoken idealist was the source of his daughter’s progressive thinking and remarkable independence.

But in this riveting dual biography, award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante explodes these myths, drawing from a trove of surprising new documents to show that it was Louisa’s actual “Marmee,” Abigail May Alcott, who formed the intellectual and emotional center of her world. Abigail, whose difficult life both inspired and served as a warning to her devoted daughters, pushed Louisa to excel at writing and to chase her unconventional dreams in a male-dominated world.

In Marmee & Louisa, LaPlante, Abigail’s great-niece and Louisa’s cousin, re-creates their shared story from diaries, letters, and personal papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and many others that were thought to have been destroyed. Here at last Abigail is revealed in her full complexity—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure, she comes to life as a fascinating writer and thinker in her own right. A politically active feminist firebrand, she was a highly opinionated, passionate, ambitious woman who fought for universal civil rights, publicly advocating for abolition, women’s suffrage, and other defin-ing moral struggles of her era.

In this groundbreaking work, LaPlante paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of a woman decades ahead of her time, and the fiercely independent daughter whose life was deeply entwined with her mother’s dreams of freedom. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women is guaranteed to transform our view of one of America’s most beloved authors.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 384 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451620665 | 
  • November 2012
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Who is Louie?” my oldest daughter asked, holding up a small book with a worn, embossed cover.1 She and I were kneeling on the dusty floor of my mother’s attic, rummaging through a huge metal trunk containing our ancestors’ belongings. The trunk had arrived decades earlier following the death of an aunt, who likewise had inherited it from her aunt. Inside the trunk, beneath feathered ladies’ hats and a nineteenth-century quilt, my daughter had found an 1849 edition of The Swiss Family Robinson, inscribed as a gift:

June 21st / 55.

George E. May

... see more
Chapter One

A Good Child, but Willful

On Wednesday, October 8, 1800, in a large frame house on Milk Street overlooking Boston Harbor, Dorothy Sewall May delivered her fourth living daughter, whom she named Abigail, after her husband’s mother.19 “[I was] a sickly child, nursed by a sickly mother,” Abigail recalled, linked from the start to her own “Marmee.”

Dorothy Sewall May’s “most striking trait” was “her affectionate disposition,” according to Abigail.22 “She adored her husband and children.”20 This natural tendency was... see more

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Hailed by NPR as one of the best books of the year, Marmee & Louisa paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, the real “Marmee.” In this dual biography award-winning author Eve LaPlante mines the Alcotts’ intimate diaries and other private papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and others thought to have been destroyed, to resuscitate this remarkable mother and daughter. Abigail May Alcott—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure—comes to life in Marmee & Louisa as a gifted writer and thinker. An activist feminist firebrand, she fought for universal civil rights, an end to slavery, and female suffrage. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women transforms our view and deepens our understanding of one of America’s most beloved authors.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Having read Marmee & Louisa, do you believe that the March family created by Louisa in Little Women was in fact autobi see more

About the Author

Eve LaPlante
Photograph by David M. Dorfman

Eve LaPlante

Eve LaPlante is a great niece and a first cousin of Abigail and Louisa May Alcott. She is the author of Seized, American Jezebel,and Salem Witch Judge, which won the 2008 Massachusetts Book Award for Nonfiction. She is also the editor of My Heart Is Boundless the first collection of Abigail May Alcott’s private papers. She lives with her family in New England.

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