In honor of Women’s History Month (which I recognize ended a month ago – I’m dreadfully behind, okay?), I picked up Miss Alcott’s E-mail: Yours for Reform of All Kinds by Kit Baake. The cover looked intriguing – Alcott’s face blown up to life-size with a peace sign tattooed on her cheek – and Little Women was a staple piece of literature during my childhood. I must confess that, reading through the introduction, I thought Ms. Baake might be crazy. She explains the premise of her book – she has happened upon a way to communicate with Louisa via email! And she will use this means of communication (that mysteriously spans hundreds of years and enters a world where the most technologically advanced object in use is the steamboat) to ask Louisa questions about her life. Then I realized the book was clearly labeled as fiction, and Baake is using this imaginary correspondence to highlight Louisa’s numerous accomplishments and fiery spirit in an engaging and relatable way.
Although most people think of Louisa as simply the author of a few excellent children’s books, she achieved much more. In Miss Alcott’s E-mail, Baake guides us through Louisa’s life, incorporating Louisa herself in a way that, although fictional, encourages the reader to feel more intimately acquainted with Louisa. Baake completed extensive research on the entire Alcott family before writing this book, and once you step back to contemplate what you’re reading, you realize that, essentially, this book is a biography. But the personable style in which she presents her knowledge fools readers into thinking this is more story-like, pleasure reading. Or at least, she fooled me.
Despite being a big fan of Little Women’s Jo growing up, I knew very little about Louisa, the real-life Jo. I was vaguely aware that she was a suffragette, but had no idea the extensive reform work she did “of all kinds,” as Baake so aptly puts it. From being the first woman registered to vote in her hometown of Concord, to supporting the abolitionist John Brown, to expounding on the incompetence of Civil War hospital staff in Hospital Sketches, Louisa used her energy to bring about change, all while financially supporting her family. Baake also touches on questions that Louisa explored in her lifetime that still relate to today’s women, such as “Can a productive and creative single woman be happy?” and “Can a married woman maintain her personal life and friends?” The book is also chock full of fun facts about Louisa. Example: she had a crush on her neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. What excellent taste.
As a reader, I personally connected to Louisa and hated to leave her at the end. So, as I live 30 minutes away from Concord, I made a pilgrimage there to visit The Orchard House, where Louisa lived for much of her adult life, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the Alcott family is buried. It made for an excellent day trip, and I’ve included my pictures of her gravesite and house. And yes, one of those pennies heaped on her gravestone is from me.
Now, back to my belated celebration of Women’s History Month. Louisa offers an excellent piece of advice for women via Marmee in Little Women: “Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take part in the world’s work, for it all affects you and yours.”