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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Middle-Grade Alcott Biography Intimate and Fascinating

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've long been a fan of Little Women, but I'd never known much about its author's personal life except that she was raised by an eccentric father. So, when Candlewick Press offered me a lovely copy of Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Liz Rosenberg to review, I jumped at the chance. With its charming middle-grade cover (illustrated by Diana Sudyka, who's best known for her work on the Mysterious Benedict Society books), I figured it would offer a good overview of Alcott's life, written at a level appropriate for children (the book's target audience is readers aged 10-14). I was right about the overview. Rosenberg offers a sweeping, but intimate look at Alcott's experiences as a daughter, a sister, an author, a breadwinner, a Civil War nurse, a suffragette, and more. It focuses, naturally, on her growth as a writer and her path to publication, citing the desperation Louisa felt to earn money for her family, which never had any. Rosenberg also talks about Alcott's most famous novel, Little Women, and how the story echoes the author's own experiences while also presenting a very idealized portrait of the Alcotts' lives.

It's evident from Little Women and other of her stories that Louisa was well acquainted with soldiering through hard times. In fact, because of her father's many oddities, her childhood and young adult years were marked by abject poverty, constant instability, and parental indifference, even neglect. Because she alone seemed to feel the weight of providing financially for her family, Louisa worked feverishly, using almost every penny she made to pay her parents' debts and support her sisters. She also dealt with wild mood swings, described as "high spirits and low moods" (107). Louisa apparently also felt that she, herself, was not worthy of much expenditure, so she sacrificed many of her own wants, needs, and longings in order to fund the lives of those she loved. All of this means that much of the material in Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots is bleak and dark. Rosenberg doesn't shy away from or gloss over these elements, making the book feel like it's most suited to an older audience, despite its juvenile appearance. The author doesn't talk down to her audience (although certain information is repeated more than necessary), which is admirable, but it is also worth noting that this particular biography might be a bit much for younger middle-grade readers. Still, the text is very readable. At 405 pages, it's a hefty tome, but it's engaging enough to make for a rather fast read overall. 

Personally, I found this book fascinating. Also, sad and depressing. I came away from the book with new knowledge about Louisa May Alcott and with a fresh appreciation for her literary genius as well as the many ways in which she embraced duty, generosity, humility, and perserverance throughout her life. Because Rosenberg quotes Alcott's more reknown biographers continually throughout Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots, this book does sometimes feel more like a brief compendium than its own, in-depth study (which makes sense given its audience and purpose), so I will definitely be searching out more original sources for continuing my reading on this beloved author. As an overall summary of her life, though, this one works quite well. 

(Readalikes: Little Women and other work by Louisa May Alcott)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for some difficult subject matter that is most suited to readers over 13

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots from the generous folks at Candlewick Press in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

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