XX. Confidential

By Jeanne Birdsall

Louisa settled at her desk, preparing to slog through another chapter of Little Women, this book she was writing only for the money. It was meant to be read by girls, which meant she needed to stay away from high drama and thunder, her usual ways to advance a story. She rubbed her temples—a headache threatened—unwittingly mussing her hair. Who was she to write for girls? A woman who’d never been a conventional girl, who barely knew what such girls talked about and wished for.

Stop fussing, she told herself, and get to work. Where was she in the story? The mother of the March family, Marmee, had just rushed home from Washington, where she’d been nursing the girls’ father, to find that Beth had miraculously escaped death from scarlet fever. The chapter needed to begin with quiet joy and gratitude. Louisa picked up her pen and wrote: Chapter 20, Confidential. I don’t think I have any words in which to tell the meeting of the mother and daughters . . . Oh, blast! What a pitiable beginning. She didn’t think she had the words? She’d better find them. She’d put too much labor into this book to abandon it now.

It took a while, but the words did come, as they always did for disciplined, hard-working Louisa. As she went, she found bits she could be proud of. Meg and Jo feeding Marmee like dutiful young storks. Amy, in exile at Aunt Josephine’s to keep her safe from scarlet fever, generously letting Laurie sleep off his exhaustion. But it was later in the chapter, when Jo talks to Marmee about John Brooke’s wooing of Meg, and what need be done about it, that Louisa’s words flew across the pages. Jo was always easiest for her to write, with all that stomping around and telling of blunt truths–as when she tells Marmee, “I don’t know anything about love, and such nonsense!” and “I wish wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up.” Who wouldn’t like writing about Jo?

Soon Meg is innocently proving to Marmee that she’s not in love with John (but soon will be), and Louisa could bring Chapter 20 to a close. She stood up to stretch, unfolding herself like an animated puzzle. After her initial reluctance, she was pleased with the day’s work. Despite Jo and flat-irons, she’d been able to subtly pivot the March sisters away from girlhood and toward incipient womanhood. Who knew what the readers—the girls—would think about that? Louisa didn’t care. It was her story.

She sat down again, picked up her pen, and wrote: Chapter 21.

Jeanne Birdsall shares Louisa May Alcott’s birthplace – Germantown, Pennsylvania – and used this as an excuse to borrow lavishly from Little Women for her own New York Times- bestselling Penderwick series. The National Book Award Jeanne won for the first of the Penderwick books is held jointly with Alcott, whether she knows it or not.


Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Little Women (1933), directed by George Cukor.

XVI. Letters

By Jean Stevenson

My introduction to Little Women came when I was eleven and “between” books and my regular visit to the public library. My mother rescued me by handing me her copy of the novel, saying, “I was your age when I read this. You might enjoy it.” Like many readers, I found myself captivated by Jo and the March family. My reading of Alcott’s novel coincided with a unit on the Civil War in school, so Jo’s account of the home front, her father’s service to the Union Army as a chaplain, and Marmee’s travel to Washington to care for him when he fell ill became real to me and further fueled my interest in the Civil War.

This led me to explore the trunks in my grandparents’ attic in search of evidence of family involvement in the war. On the top tray in a trunk I came upon an empty leather wallet and a small brown pocket-sized copy of the New Testament including the Psalms, which was inscribed: “Presented to F. A. Edmands as a Memento of the existing Rebellion of the Southern States. B. W. Edmands, July 1864.” It also contained a label that indicated the volume was “From the cargo of the Anglo-Rebel Blockade Runner Minna for sale by W. H. Piper and Company 133 Washington Street, Boston.” I ran downstairs, book in hand, to ask my grandmother who F. A. Edmands and B. W. Edmands were. She identified the names as those of my great-grandfather (F. A. Edmands) and great-great-grandfather (B. W. Edmands).

After reading the letters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy wrote to Marmee, I headed back up to the trunk in the attic in search of further evidence of family involvement in the war—perhaps in the form of letters my great grandfather might have written to his family. I found none. I later learned that my great grandfather, who was born on December 31, 1847, had lied about his age and taken an assumed name when he enlisted in the Union Army. When he returned to Boston after the war, he never divulged the name he had used or the unit he had served with, and he never talked about his experiences. Without this vital information, neither my great grandmother, Eva Augusta Davis Edmands, nor his six children, could obtain veteran’s benefits when he died in 1885 at age 38. His death and lack of documentation meant my grandfather, Horace Frederick Edmands, would be sent to the Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor in 1885 when he was six years old. Although Grandpa Edmands’s description of living conditions at the Boston Farm School could be described as harsh in today’s terms, he maintained that the skills he learned there probably saved his life.

Although I didn’t find any correspondence in the attic, letters as a source of information about people (real and fictional) and the times they inhabit have long intrigued me. Curiosity about history, the people who make it, those who write fiction and nonfiction stories about events, and their creative processes propel my scholarly life. I regularly use primary sources in the form of working papers that include notes, drafts, sketches, galley and page proofs, and correspondence. I can’t draw a direct connection between the letters in Little Women and the New Testament my great grandfather carried. But my memories of the intellectual adventure Louisa May Alcott and my ancestors initiated are still alive.

On the verso of the page containing the inscription, my great grandfather wrote “F. A. Edmands” in pencil. Tracing the inscription and signatures and turning the small volume in my hand, I am still filled with a powerful sense of connection with my ancestors.

Jean M. Stevenson is Associate Professor-Emerita at the University of Minnesota Duluth where she taught courses in children’s literature and literacy.  Although retired, she continues to conduct research at the Kerlan Collection-CLRC.