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Louisa May Alcott and Boys

June 29, 2018

“…many people think boys are a nuisance, but that is because they don’t understand them.  I do; and I never saw a boy yet whom I could not get on capitally with after I had once found the soft spot in his heart.” -Jo (March) Bhaer, Little Men, published 1870

Boys. Louisa May Alcott expressed over and over in her writing that boys held a special place in her heart and that she understood their restless, loud, active ways better than she understood the proper, quiet ways of girls.

When I was about seven or eight years old, my parents gave me an illustrated copy of Little Men (1965 Golden Press Classics). I didn’t know who Louisa May Alcott was or that the book had been written over 100 years ago or that it had been the sequel to another book.

Little_Men_1st_ed (1)

A few years later, a friend placed my first copy of Little Women in my hands as a birthday present, and I was introduced to the younger Jo. Somewhere along the way, I connected the two books and realized that Josephine March was Mrs. Bhaer, the mother to the boys who lived at Plumfield.  Jo March’s moody, restless, “topsy-turvy” weaknesses that she tried so hard to tame and manage, became strengths to boys who needed understanding, fun, and space to be a little wild now and then.


Original illustration by May Alcott 1869

I know, for I am now in my fifteenth year working at a home for boys. Somehow, I have come to live out my own version of Jo March’s life. We are technically a “residential facility for at-risk youth,” but that just sounds cold and institutional. In reality, we are a temporary home for boys needing discipline, guidance, training, and counseling.

Our boys are placed with us for various reasons, as described at the end of Little Women and the beginning of Little Men. Our founders even started the program with a nephew, just as Friedrich Bhaer took in his German nephews Franz and Emil. We have had boys who struggle with learning disabilities (like Nat), who are full of energy and live to be outdoors (like Tommy), and who long for complete independence (like Dan).

Just as at Plumfield, our residents are all unique and are encouraged to learn a trade or develop their talents, especially those they naturally possess, a basic Transcendentalist tenet the Alcotts embraced. Jo and Friedrich Bhaer could be real-life staff at our “school,” for we, too, grow gardens, teach our boys basic farming, and offer trade skills such as woodshop, welding, mechanics, and cooking. We feel the boys’ hurts, from sore throats to broken hearts.

As the English teacher, I have included Little Men in my curriculum for Middle School English. Every year I teach this book, my students each identify with a character. Once I had a student who proclaimed, “I am Tommy. I understand why he gets into so much trouble even though he doesn’t mean to!”


via Wikimedia Commons by The City of Boston Archives

Above is a school in Boston created in honor of Louisa May Alcott, apparently around 1910 or 1920, after her death. Hmmm….This plain structure with no flower gardens or spaces to roam or inspiration seems very far from the fictional Plumfield.

LMA may have had, in a loose sense of the term, a sort of day home for boys. They likely came to her often for a listening ear, a bit of nursing of cuts or bruises, advice about girls and future careers, and the many “projects” boys always seem to be planning. We know of a few of these boys from her journals and can only speculate how many are inserted in her stories as fictional characters.

It seems to have begun with Alcott’s mother Abigail Bronson Alcott. Anne Brown Adams (daughter of John Brown) came to live in Concord for a time after her father’s execution and boarded at the Alcotts’ home at Orchard House. She remembered that Mrs. Alcott thought it “the duty of every mother in the land to invite a few men to spend their evenings at their home and so fill them with rational amusements, that it would draw the young men away from bad places” (Shealy 8).

The family (the real-life Alcotts) with perhaps the fewest monetary resources in town became the hub of social life, promoting and leading activities such as plays, clubs, long skates on the river, and discussions about art and literature and God and life. Afterward, their guests might have shared in baskets of fresh, popped corn and crisp apples.


The real Louisa May Alcott

We see the March girls offering a refuge such as this for young Theodore Lawrence in Little Women, including the lonely boy next door in harmless, but creative, entertainments.  He later acknowledges that they have, in a way, saved his life and put him on the right track in life: “You have all done more for me than I can ever thank you for, except by doing my best not to disappoint you” (349).

Many years earlier, Frederick Llewellyn Willis, who first became acquainted with the Alcott family in 1944, also boarded with the Alcotts (at Hillside). Having a more intimate knowledge of them, as he was a distant cousin by marriage, he hints that he was let into the close-knit family circle and allowed to see them as they were. This was before the family was famous. He recalls that Louisa was exactly as she described herself in the opening chapters of Little Women and “always lamented she was not born a boy” and “preferred boys’ games” (Alcott Memoirs 38).


A popular book of the late 1800s via Flickr

A decade later, in 1856, Alcott mentions being teased by “the boys…about being an authoress” (Life, Letters, and Journals 88). Still in her early twenties, the writer was clearly comfortable around males who were younger than she, probably only by eight or ten years. Surely many of these had crushes on the older girl with the dark expressive eyes.

During the Civil War, Alcott bravely nursed wounded men, dispensing medications, feeding, bathing, dressing wounds, and watching over the critically ill. I find this astonishing for a time period in which an unmarried woman would have felt too innocent or shy or proper to do such things. She also provided for the other, emotional, needs of the men, writing their letters to home, reading, listening to their struggles, plumping pillows, comforting amputees, and amusing all with her wit and sense of humor, as described in Hospital Sketches.


Civil War soldiers wait for meds in this drawing via Flickr

From that time on, it seems she thought of herself as a sort of mother or older sister to these and others (her journals are fraught with references to herself as the older matron), including Ladislas Wisniewski, the young man she met on her travels to Europe and whom she later marked as “Laurie” in her journals (179). In researching, it is quite telling just how many of those who knew her as young men believed themselves to be the true “Laurie.” They must have recognized episodes from their own lives in her fiction, but all felt special to her in some way or another.

It is ironic that the woman who so loved and understood boys is best known for her story of four young women. Yet, Laurie is central to the story, as each girl takes him under her wing and influences him in her own way. Is it not as much the story of a motherless boy who finds solace in a home, and are we not taken into that home just as he is?

Jo finds her life’s work in doing this sort of thing and, with Fritz, creates a “happy, home-like place for boys who need teaching, care, and kindness” (Little Women 351). She sees this first group of boys grow up, marry, and create homes of their own. She learns that not every single one will be famous or wealthy, but each one has been touched by his time at Plumfield.

Now and then I get a phone call and a thank you from a now-grown “boy” who is married and has children.  I have one biological son, but many, many others I will never forget. Recently, I received the most touching message I have ever received from one of my own boys who has gone on to the next phase of his life. He is the “Nat” of my career, the one who is truly a selfless example to others. He wrote from his heart, ending with the words: “I am so grateful for the work that you put into what God has put in front of you.”

I believe I am doing what I do, in part, because Josephine March was such a strong influence upon me. The fictional home of Plumfield was likely a metaphor for Louisa May Alcott’s own homes (one need not think too long nor hard to see a connection between Plumfield and Orchard House) and the many lives that were touched by those who visited them. Although girls were her greatest fans, it was, no doubt, boys who knew the real Lou.



Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath, 1863. Retrieved January 17, 2018 from

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Men:  Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys. Boston:  Roberts Brothers, 1888. Print.

Alcott, Louisa May. Little WomenPart Second. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. Print.

Cheney, Ednah D., ed. Louisa May Alcott:  Her Life, Letters, and Journals. Boston:  Little Brown and Company, 1898. Print.

Forbes, Edith Willis Linn. Alcott Memoirs: From the Journals of Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis. Boston:  Richard G. Badger, 1915. Print.

Shealy, Daniel, ed. Alcott in Her Own Time. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005. Print.


New Year’s, Bigfoot, and Lucy Maud Montgomery

January 9, 2018

I guess I’ve always had a thing for sleuthing. When I was nine, my best friend and I formed a Mystery Club. We were convinced that Bigfoot prowled around our neighborhood at night. With notebooks in hand, we inspected the fields and tree rows near our houses and wrote down anything that looked suspicious. Once, we found a stepladder leaned up against a tree and footprints nearby. That confirmed for us that we were very close to finding him.

Many years later (not to tell my age, but Trixie Belden was my hero), I still love mysteries. While I no longer prowl around looking for physical clues, I still enjoy finding “clues” in books. Finding an author in her work or discovering what life was like in the past through the everyday experiences of characters is like finding a treasure.

New Year’s Day was last week, but was no holiday for my students at the facility where I teach. While trying to get back into a routine again after my Christmas vacation, scanning my lesson plans, loading videos that I wanted to show, and assigning books to students for the new semester, I began to think about how New Year’s was celebrated long ago. Perhaps, I thought, it was more than a ball dropping, a countdown, and a toast.

A poem for children from 1881 titled “A New Year’s Dialogue” by Marion Douglas reveals small children making resolutions on New Year’s Eve in a simple poem. Nothing about weight loss or organizing their rooms or career goals is mentioned. Rather, these are moral resolutions to be more cheerful, kinder, and more disciplined:

TheNursery“The past is past; the year is new:
We will be patient, brave, and true;
When we are bidden, quick to mind;
Unselfish, courteous, and kind;
And try in every place to see
What good, good children we can be.”

We see this reiterated in L. M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road (the sequel to The Story Girl), published in 1913, when the Prince Edward Island children decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. The narrator, a boy of around 14 years old, suggests that resolutions should be “giving up wrong things or doing right things” after his brother Felix proclaims he going to stop eating apples as his resolution for the year (62).


Cousin Cecily worries incessantly that they are not being kind enough to one another on the last day of the year, and hired boy Peter promises, “I will try…to say my prayers every night regular and not twice one night because I don’t expect to have time the next…” (68).

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), published in 1898, the very British Elizabeth, who is living in Germany with her husband, describes New Year’s Eve as having a “funeral sort of feeling in the air” as they attend a church service where the parishioners are reminded of their sins and encouraged to repent:

“The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child’s voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea (157).”


It is also on New Year’s Eve that fictional Nat realizes the error of his ways and repents of spending too much money, idling away his time in superficiality, and not being focused on his music (Louisa May Alcott Jo’s Boys).

Like Elizabeth, he is in Germany at the time, and on New Year’s Day, his German landlady brings him a tray “on which st[ands] a bottle of wine and an astonishing cake bedecked with sugar-plums of every hue, and crowned with candles.” She and a neighbor both wish him not just a happy New Year’s Day, but wishes for a good year all-around (Alcott 235).


Bavarian Cream from Lowney’s Cookbook, published 1908

By incorporating seasons in her books, Alcott often gives us glimpses of our favorite characters in summer, fall, winter, spring, and various holidays. She again shows one of her characters repenting on New Year’s in Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Charlie has gotten drunk after making “New Year’s calls,” which, it is implied, involved going to various friends’ houses to drink toasts.


Eight Cousins (Alcott, published 1874)

This hearkens back to the English tradition of wassailing:

“It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year’s Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished everyone “A Happy New Year” (Old English Sports by P. H. Ditchfield).

According to the book referenced above and published in 1891, the gifts may have included oranges “stuck with cloves,” custards, or tarts (basically treats). By the 1800’s, this expanded to jewelry and other presents we might expect to receive at Christmas.

In fact, the word Yule translates to “second Christmas.”

This likely explains why the college students in L. M. Montgomery’s story “Ida’s New Year Cake” are commiserating at the beginning of the story “because none of them was able to go home for New Year’s” (Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories 1905 to 1906):

“This will be the first New Year’s I have ever spent away from home,” sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. “It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I’ll have to go to work just the same” (51).

The plot revolves around Ida Mitchell, who has invited everyone over for a celebration, but finds that her fruitcake has been delivered (accidentally) to another Ida Mitchell. In trying to retrieve her lost cake, she discovers that the recipient is a lonely, poor girl whose life has been brightened by the home-baked gift. The main character hasn’t the heart to tell her namesake the truth.

Jc rankin at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Dalhousie College in 1905:  JC Rankin at the English language Wikipedia (

In real life, Lucy Maud Montgomery did, in fact, attend a university for a time during the school year of 1895-1896 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In her journals, she indicates that she was unable to go home for the holidays due to the weather and her grandfather’s being unwilling to meet her or return her to the station (The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery Volume I:  1889-1910: 151).

She also returned to Halifax to work for the newspaper in town as a proofreader in 1901-1902.

While the short story may not be autobiographical, LMM cleverly inserts another character, a “Miss Monroe,” who lives in the same boarding house as the college girls and is invited to attend the party. Miss Monroe is described as “a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book” (52).

The author that gave us both Anne and Emily was able to show us the feelings of the introvert and the extrovert. She herself had been the popular college student, the lonely schoolteacher, the proud working girl, and the freelance writer (and all this before writing the books for which she is best known).
I end with an excerpt, recorded on New Year’s Eve, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals back in 1891 when she was 17 years old:


Public Domain, from the British Library
Title – Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker (1885)

“Thursday, Dec 31, 1891

The old year did not slip away in a green twilight and a pinky-yellow sunset. Instead, it is going out in a wild white bluster and blow. It doesn’t seem possible that another year has gone…I am cosily tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. It is a wild night out–one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes–and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies” (The Selected Journals…Volume I: 1889-1910:  71).

Happy New Year!

Christmas Illustrations in Literature

December 13, 2017

Illustrator Frances Brundage wishes us a Merry Christmas in 1910:


Frances Brundage Merry Christmas image

If you could caption this postcard, what would you call it?

Louisa May Alcott was no longer alive when Brundage began to illustrate re-printings of Alcott’s beloved novels (the above drawing is not connected). I’m not sure the sweet-faced cherubs drawn by this idealistic, albeit extremely talented, artist would have attracted LMA’s attention had she been alive. I sense she may have looked for a sense of humor over a sense of nostalgia.

Alcott most likely expressed her own experiences in several of her stories in which children do not anticipate any “extras” for the most wonderful day of the year, as in the opening line of her most famous novel:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents…” (Little Women)

For a little girl at that time, a pretty dolly was the most coveted of toys. Somehow, I picture Alcott rather wishing for books, pens, journals, a pair of skates, or a bright toboggan rather than a doll!

The Coming of Father Christmas

In the next illustration, an English Christmas is celebrated by a “merry troop” in  “The Coming of Father Christmas,” written by Eliza F. Manning and published in 1894 in London:


The Coming of Father Christmas by Eliza F. Manning (1894)

In this narrative poem, Father Christmas asks some children to come with him to bring some orphans from the inner city and be their “playmates” for the day. In the illustration, we see the various social backgrounds of the children all feasting together. Notice the piles of oranges and puddings on the table (ah, it brings to mind Dickens himself).

Then, Father Christmas distributes the gifts:

“Here’s my basket full of treasures…tops and goodies, marbles, dolls. Climbing monkeys. Pretty Polls; A Jack-in-the-box, and picture books too, Old Mother Hubbard, and Little Boy Blue.”

Finally, he reads the Christmas story as the children listen near the dying fire of evening, the Christ child the true lauded one of the day. Here, you may access the The Coming of Father Christmas. It is worth a read for its stunning illustrations.

“I Will Honor Christmas in My Heart and Try to Keep it All the Year”

Another British illustrator, Arthur Rackham uses humor to depict scenes in a version of A Christmas Carol published in 1915 by Lippincott. I love the way both Dickens and Rackham give us a glimpse of the games once played at celebrations in the 1800’s.


Image by Arthur Rackham from A Christmas Carol 1910

In the scene at Fred’s Christmas party (one Scrooge was invited to attend), Topper chases after a pretty girl as they play “Blind Man’s B[l]uff.” He and Fred have conspired so that Topper can see the girl and always seems to go where she goes. Of course, he catches her, she pretends not to like it, and the two disappear together! (p 102)

I rather fancy that Alcott would have liked the humor and sharpness Rackham put into his “sketches.” He was known for his fairy and fantasy illustrations (as was Alcott as a writer).

Perhaps it is John Leech who visually gave us the Scrooge we all know and love in his illustrations of the very first edition of A Christmas Carol published by Chapman & Hall in 1843. Here, we see Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present:


Scrooge’s Third Visitor” by John Leech (first edition 1843).

It is exactly as Dickens describes (except perhaps for Scrooge’s age), showing that this illustrator greatly understands the humor and irony of every detail. Here, a scrawny, childish old man in a ridiculous night-dress contrasts with the high-spirited, muscular Spirit of Christmas Present (even that name makes me smile).

Though his faces weren’t detailed, Leech gave us the true expressions of pity, joy, fear, despair, and compassion that challenge us all to “honor Christmas” in our hearts and try to “keep it all the year!”

Now, I leave you with another postcard, this time of a boy since I teach all boys, and we are nearing the end of the semester. Perhaps this year, we will get enough snow to build one of these:


Birds, Naturalists, and Writers

May 26, 2017

While working outside the other evening, I heard the unmistakable sound of a Bob White. Bob-Bob-White he called over and over. The sound transported me to my childhood in Iowa, where I would answer the bird-call and exult in his calling back to me again and again.

Americans have had an obsession with birds since Audubon first determined to find, in person, all North American birds and draw or paint them. The copper-plated engraving process, both expensive and time-consuming, created a soft, rich, nostalgic effect, as did lithography, which took the place of the copper technique.

Here, we see not only the beauty of Audubon’s hand-painted work, but also of the engraving, identifying the birds, done by his printer Havell. Note the plate number at the top, right-hand corner.



Painted Finch:  1,2, Old Males, 3 M of 1st. Year, 4,  2nd. Year, 5, Female.

[An up-close, high-resolution download and more information can be found at]

My first introduction to naturalists (as in those who study animals and plants in their natural habitats) came subconsciously through writers such as Louisa May Alcott. After years of teaching and reading about Alcott, I now better understand that Alcott was influenced by her father’s background and involvement in the transcendentalist movement.

Jo’s parenting methods in her home for boys (Little Men) allows for each boy to explore and grow in his own unique gifts and talents as an “individual”.  As a teacher at a home for boys, I relate to all the types of “treasures” boys might bring home, including the following from my own experiences:  sticks, strings, weeds, seeds, feathers, stones, fossils, lizards, snakes, and even a freshly-shot turkey (he had a license and it was in-season, but still!). In Little Men, several of the boys create a naturalist museum brimming with all sorts of specimens, including:

“A snake’s skin, a big wasp’s nest, a birch-bark canoe, a string of birds’ eggs, wreaths of gray moss from the South, and a bunch of cotton-pods” (Louisa May Alcott, Little Men).

Birds Nest

Nests and Eggs of Birds of the United States:  Illustrated by Thomas G. Gentry, c 1906

Audubon stuffed his home at Mill Grove, Kentucky, with similar collections, according to his own journals published by his daughter in 1897. As a way to become better known, he visited naturalist museums all over the country and tried to contribute his work to them if they allowed him to. In the process, he learned from others how to improve his methods and market himself.

He painstakingly drew and re-drew birds and found a way to color them by hand:

“February [1822] was spent in drawing birds strenuously, and I thought I had improved much by applying coats of water-color under the pastels” (Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and his Journals,Volume I).

Here is a drawing/painting which he completed that same year:


Black Bellied Darter or Snake Bird. Painting by John James Audubon, New Orleans, 1822.

Like Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter shared a passion for birds, as well as other creatures of the forest, but described them, rather than drew them, in her fictional works such as Girl of the Limberlost and non-fiction articles for magazines such as McCall’s. Rich with imagery, her writing shows us her beloved home in The Song of the Cardinal:

“Every hollow tree homes its colony of bats. Snakes sun on the bushes. The water folk leave trails of shining ripples in their wake as they cross the lagoons. Turtles waddle clumsily from the logs. Frogs take graceful leaps from pool to pool.”


Illustration Pond and Stream:  Nature Books for Children, c 1906

Books, magazines, journals, calendars, and illustrations from this period of literature were ripe with nature and depicted it in its most realistic forms, perhaps due most to the efforts of naturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to be a calling for Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter, and others such as Chester A. Reed.


I quite love this illustration of bob whites from The Bird Book, by Reed and published in 1915 by Doubleday. Unfortunately, this talented artist and naturalist passed away of pneumonia in 1912.

He claims that the bob whites “frequent open fields” and build their nests “along roadsides.” That explains why I heard their call so often growing up. Open fields surrounded our house, and grass-covered ditches provided the habitat these plump birds need to propagate.

Reed also had a passion for photography, filling the pages of this beautiful book with photos of eggs, as well as appealing graphics and sketches on every page.

It is apparent that this was meant to be a resource for those who came across eggs, nests, or the birds themselves and wanted to identify them. But, had he lived in the 21st century, he might have been a graphic artist!

I try to remind myself when I watch old movies or read books with black-and-white photos that people viewed the world in color, just as we do now. They noticed the varying shades of green of the soft grasses, the yellow reeds, and the deep-emerald swallows. They, too, knew the white-blue of a summer sky and the cold-purple blue of a lake in the fall.

Perhaps this is the very reason Audubon’s works were so popular. For the bird world is a world of color. He knew this and wanted others to see what he noticed and not just in the grays of a sketch, however well done it might have been.

Thanks to the naturalists who left us records in photos, sketches, paintings, writings, and journals, we have a picture of the world as it was and in their eyes.


Recently, a poll on Twitter asked which book first inspired in you a love for reading. I thought immediately of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This and other childhood books were my friends, their words my teachers, and their settings my travels. Even today, I see the connections between these books and my …

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This week, I heard several different people moaning about the end of summer, even though it is just now July 21. I wanted to proclaim, “There are nearly two months left of summer! Don’t wish them away!”  Then, today, because our patio umbrella was ruined in a storm, we were trying to find a replacement. The manager of the …

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