Riffle Backstory: Q&A with Eve LaPlante, Author of Marmee & Louisa

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Eve LaPlante is the author of four nonfiction books, including the groundbreaking biography of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, Marmee & Louisa, and the editor of the first collection of the papers of Abigail May Alcott, My Heart Is Boundless. LaPlante has degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and lives in New England with her family. Marmee & Louisa is out this November in paperback from Simon & Schuster!

Your book reveals, really for the first time ever, that Louisa May Alcott's mother, Abigail, was a truly remarkable woman who had an enormous impact on her daughter. Can you tell us a little about her character? How alike are Abigail and the Marmee of Little Women?

Abigail did not fit into the society in which she was raised. The ideal woman then – and throughout most of American history – was a docile, nonintellectual homebody. Abigail was more like women today. She wanted girls to be equal to boys, and women to have the same opportunities and responsibilities as men. Her unusual social and political views included a belief that women should vote and participate in public life. She opposed slavery in the 1830s, when proper Boston society considered abolition insane. As one of American’s first social workers, Abigail sought ways to alleviate urban poverty, and as a mother she gave her daughters all the encouragement to do whatever they felt called to do – have a career, marry, travel, and seek their fortunes. These opportunities had not been available to her. But she had enjoyed a happy girlhood in a comfortable house filled with books and sisters, with a devoted older brother who encouraged her desire to be educated and equal to him.

The fictional mother-daughter relationship portrayed by Louisa May Alcott in Little Women is a nugget of the actual relationship between Louisa and Abigail, which was more difficult and complex. Louisa took a slice of the relationship she had with her smart, loving, encouraging mother and gave us that in Little Women. What she left out was a lot of pain: the homelessness the Alcotts endured for thirty years, the marital strife her mother experienced, and their poverty. You might say Louisa cleaned things up when she wrote Little Women. In fact, the stable, happy home in Little Women seems more like the home Abigail grew up in, as the youngest of four girls, a comfortable house in early nineteenth-century Boston, when it was still a pretty country town.

What is the strangest thing you learned while writing this book?

The strangest thing I learned – which still amazes me – is that Abigail’s papers have been so long overlooked. For more than a century, everyone believed that Abigail May Alcott, the model for “Marmee” in Little Women, left behind no written records because her family burned all her private papers after she died. In fact, hundreds of pages of Abigail’s letters and journals survived, not only in relatives’ attics and friends’ farmhouses but also in university archives, where for more than a century they have been hiding in plain sight. These papers reveal the inner life of “a witty, captivating writer,” according to Publishers Weekly, a woman whose “moral conviction and strong character kept her engaged in social issues.” One of America’s earliest abolitionists, suffragists, and social workers, Abigail was truly a woman for our time.

If you could sit down with Louisa and Abigail and ask them one question, what would that be?

I would ask them, “What would you do differently if you could come back to life today? Given the greater range of options women have now, what different life choices would you make?”

What book, in the history of books, do you wish you had written?

Charlotte’s Web.

What other books or authors are you raving about right now?

I love the novels Stoner, by John Williams, A Month In The Country, by J.L. Carr, and Gilead, by Marilynn Robinson.

You're about to be marooned alone on a desert island—name three things you would take along.

Fresh water, matches, and a knife. If I could have a fourth thing: in the distance, a boat approaching.

And finally, finish this sentence: You should check out Marmee & Louisa because....

… Abigail’s and Louisa’s experiences are so much like our own. Abigail and Louisa May Alcott were women like us who struggled with the same questions we face: how to balance work and family, how to hold children close while letting them go, how to combine a public and a private life, how to be true to one’s ideals without causing harm, and how to find a voice in a world that does not listen. While women today have more opportunities and choices, we still face challenges the Alcott women faced.

  • Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother

  • My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa's Mother

  • Charlotte's Web (Trophy Newbery)

  • Stoner (New York Review Books Classics)

  • A Month in the Country (New York Review Books Classics)

  • Gilead: A Novel