Laurinda’s Rating: 1/5
Somehow, this book by Cornelia Meigs won the 1934 Newbery Medal. I have no idea how the judges even managed to finish it, let alone vote it the best children’s book that year. I wish I was kidding. There were many dramatic sighs and forceful closings of the book when I was reading because the book is just so trite and boring.
The book is (supposedly) a biography of popular children’s author Louisa May Alcott, a pioneer of realistic children’s fiction. While Meigs clearly has outside sources as she quotes Alcott’s journal entries several times, this book reads as a lightweight fan-girl imagining of what Alcott’s life and inner thoughts were like. Alcott’s own words are extremely engaging and often amusing, so it’s a shame that Meigs relies on them so little. Meigs begins with Alcott’s parentage and continues through the end of her life, though most attention is focused on her childhood. The author manages to turn a fairly eventful life into a series of fluffy descriptions, interspersed with name dropping. Any “negative” or impulsive actions Louisa took, which, since she was fairly free-spirited and independent, were rather numerous, are quickly glossed over and excused. Louisa, the long suffering, did everything for the good of her family, a theme that, while likely true, got old quickly. All of the biographical elements lead to Meigs chapter comparing Louisa’s life to her writings. This section is decent enough, highlighting how awful the previous ones were.
The only section that I found somewhat interesting was the chapter on Louisa’s service in a Washington, D.C. hospital during the Civil War. She lasted a month before succumbing to typhoid fever but provided excellent service to the wounded, including talking some of them through what we now call PTSD. She also made sure that recovering soldiers were not assigned tasks that would cause relapses of their conditions, undertaking their assigned tasks herself. Meigs connects this to Louisa’s first big writing break, her “Hospital Sketches”, written initially as letters to her family telling the stories of the people she met on the ward. This piqued my interest in Alcott’s early writings, which I may seek out. It didn’t, however, make up for the utterly terrible rest of the book. Avoid this one at all costs.
I did a quick search for biographies of Louisa May Alcott and came across this 1898 one on Project Gutenberg. Skimming through the first few sections, the language is eerily familiar, though it reads better in the 1898 version as that one is much more concise. Being too lazy to delve deeper, I don’t know if both authors mimicked Alcott’s own style, as can unconsciously happen when you steep yourself in another author’s writings, or if Meigs plagiarized this earlier version.
I’ll leave you with a passage from Louisa’s journal at age 10:
“Concord, Thursday.–I had an early run in the woods before the dew was off the grass. The moss was like velvet, and as I ran under the arches of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful. I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide “Virginia meadows.”
It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond. A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone. It seemed as if I felt God as I never did before, and I prayed in my heart that I might keep that happy sense of nearness all my life.
[I have, for I most sincerely think that the little girl “got religion” that day in the wood when dear mother Nature led her to God.–L. M. A., 1885.]”