Louisa May Alcott, best known for Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series, and Lucy Maude Montgomery, creator of Anne Shirley, were some of my very favorite authors growing up. Because they all lived so long before me, and because they wrote strong girl characters who lived in the sort of past I idealized as a child, I had them mentally filed in the same group without noticing that they all also shared a first initial.
All of them are known for books that have at least an element of autobiography, so to know their work is to have a basic knowledge of their childhood.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is the earliest, something I didn't realize as a child, since her New England was more settled and modern than the wilderness Wilder grew up in a generation later. Daughter of transcendentalist Bronson Alcott and raised partially on a Utopian farm, Alcott grew up in a family that valued spiritual, intellectual and philosophical endeavors. By the time Little Women was published in 1868, she'd been writing for newspapers and writing "sensational" novels under a pen name for nearly a decade. Little Women more so than its less renowned sequels, Little Men and Jo's Boys, draws heavily from Alcott's own life, growing up the tomboyish sister with ink-stained fingers.
|The March girls--I mean, little women.|
My personal favorite by Alcott was Eight Cousins and its more romantic sequel, Rose in Bloom. Orphaned Rose is raised by her Scottish American uncle, six fussy aunts and their seven rowdy boys. Alcott's work is decidedly preachy for today's taste, championing everything from healthy eating to caring for the poor to eliminating corsets and bustles from girls' wardrobes. Still, her characters are vivid and their experiences and emotions ring true across the decades.
|The cover I grew up with.|
Laura Ingalls Wilder (1857-1947), of course, wrote an entire series based largely on her own childhood as a pioneer throughout what was then considered the west. She had a long life and seems to have been more content with her lot than the other two Ls. She didn't start writing until her 50s, when she became a columnist for a Wisconsin newspaper. After her family, including her adult daughter, lost money in the stock market crash of 1929, she used her daughter Rose's publishing connections and editing know-how to get Little House in the Big Woods published. It met such popular and critical success that she wrote many more sequels. There are on-going arguments about how much of the books was written by the daughter or the mother, and how accurate her memories were after so long, but none of that detracts from the books themselves. (I'm firmly in the "she wrote them herself and Rose just edited and advised" camp.)
Little House in the Big Woods was the first chapter book I read to myself, unable to wait for my big sister to get home from school and continue the next chapter. The other two books that had a big influence on me were Little House on the Prairie and The Long Winter, although I read the whole series more than once. Rather like the Narnian Chronicles, the books were written out of chronological order, but are read by most in order. Living as long as she did, Wilder really was recreating a time gone by when she wrote, even for her first audiences. I think of the Garth Williams illustrations as the "right" ones, but they are not the originals by a long shot.
While all works over a century old will show a dated way of thinking, there are especially problematic passages in the Little House books. Sexism is rampant, and Laura doesn't question or challenge her place in the world nearly as much as Jo or Anne do. A few years ago I had the chance to read a few chapters to a friend's child, and was horrified to find myself reading about Pa putting on blackface for a minstrel show. Native Americans are portrayed very much as Other, and the dichotomy of "good Injun/bad Injun" is clear. I would still argue that this series is an important part of American literature and can be read by children who can understand that the attitudes are just as out of place today as the butter-churning. To deny this part of our history makes no sense. The good and the bad are all mixed together, just like in modern life.
|Oh no she didn't!|
Anne Shirley's story includes a much swoonier romance than Jo March's or Laura Ingalls's. Gilbert is an oft-cited "first book boyfriend," something I've never heard anyone say about Alonzo Wilder or the Professor (although Laurie next door picks up a few votes). Montgomery herself turned down a few marriage proposals in her youth, but wed a minister when she was in her late 30s. She seems to have been very unhappy in her marriage, as her husband is thought to have been both deeply religious and to suffer from severe depression. Scholars infer that writing was her one joy and comfort, and one can only imagine how much wish fulfillment lies in the love and affection that surround her characters.
|Oh yes she did!|
(All information and author photos taken from that most venerable resource, Wikipedia.)