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Miss Alcott's E-mail: Yours for Reforms of All Kindsby Kit Bakke
Synopses & Reviews
A progressive-minded American everywoman, a child of the 60s now entering midlife, takes lessons in political commitment and personal fulfillment from her spiritual mentor, Louisa May Alcott.
"Somewhere along the line, would-be writer Kit Bakke, former member of the Weather Underground, now a middle-aged, middle-class mom, went on a Louisa May Alcott binge. Earlier, she'd tried sending notes and even short stories to living writers, all of whom ignored her. She got the idea of e-mailing Louisa, and to Kit's surprise, Louisa e-mailed her back. On that charming conceit, this excellent... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) book is based. Bakke isn't interested in Alcott the children's writer, creator of those enduring archetypes: Meg, the responsible older sister, and — later on — responsible housewife; Jo, the headstrong tomboy who sells her hair for money and comes home shorn like a boy; Beth, who's so good she just up and dies; or Amy, the beautiful, narcissistic little prig. (It's a simplified template for an entire gender, perhaps, but twice as complex as the Madonna/whore division we're usually stuck with.) Those 'little women' were important, though Bakke doesn't acknowledge it. They shaped many, many American lives. Bakke is more interested in Alcott the woman: how and where she was raised; the time she spent on the commune set up by her harebrained dad; her activism as an abolitionist; her campaign for women's suffrage; the months she spent as a Civil War nurse; the gothic novels she wrote for adults, which bristled with 'incest and drugs and murders and betrayal'; the hard-won fame, after 'Little Women,' that turned into a gilded cage. Because of these causes and strivings and yearnings for independence, Bakke sees genuine parallels between her life and Alcott's — although she keeps herself mostly, modestly, in the background. Bakke, too, lived on a commune. She, too, was a political activist, who got worn down by circumstance: 'My revolutionary days in the passionate and violent Weather Underground were like the ruins of Pompeii, the sharp edges slowly silted over by the ash of graduate school, marriage, kids in college, professional career, husband with ditto, vacations, gardening, dinners in nice restaurants.' She had morphed, if you will, from fiery Jo to conscientious Meg, and so turns back to the source, Louisa herself, to question all these values, everything from violent political confrontation to domestic obligation. The author divides each of her chapters into three parts: an essay about the period in question, an e-mail from her to Louisa, and then Louisa's reply. Although Bakke sends her own e-mails in presumably 'real' time, the messages get to Alcott during the last six months of her life. She responds, then, as a pretty sick lady, bored to death and greatly in need of being cheered up. Bakke's 'voice' is divided three ways, into the brisk prose of the essays and then the writings of two very different women, slowly getting to know each other over the divide of a century. The effect is like a wonderful movie shot with a hand-held camera. Taking material that is all too well known to us, often seen as edifying and boring, something we learned in high school and then filed under 'F for Forget,' Bakke shows us idealistic, 19th-century New England. She gives us the little town of Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived right across the street from the Alcotts. Henry David Thoreau surveyed the Alcott property. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived just next door and used to cut through the fields so he wouldn't get stuck talking to Bronson Alcott, who, disliking any kind of work, would sit in front of his house, using apples as his bait, waiting to snag his neighbors in a philosophical discussion. They thought, in that little American town, that their ideas — their essays, their novels, conversations, experiments in communal living — could both form and reform the world. They had many of the concerns that we have now. They worried about factory workers, about exploiting animals — many of them were vegetarians. They were repelled by gadgets and junk. Thoreau lived alone for a couple of years, on (almost) nothing but beans. He went home to his mother each week — to help her out, or to get his laundry done? Emerson sought a Higher God in Nature. They weren't legends then, just people. But Louisa grew up idolizing them, embarrassed often by having to live on Emerson's handouts, while her indomitable mother struggled to keep a home for her husband and four daughters on almost no money at all. Louisa didn't want to get married, it seems from this text. She moved to Boston in 1855 when she was 22 and lived on her own. She took in sewing and looked after children and wrote. At 24, she wrote, 'I love luxury, but freedom and independence better.' Then, sadly, in her early fifties, 'Freedom was always my longing, but I have never had it.' So many things didn't exactly work out — for her or for the country. All that zealous abolitionism, and racism is still our besetting sin. All the work for women's suffrage, and neither men nor women turn out in great number to vote. Louisa died early from mercury poisoning (used to treat her typhoid fever), and drug companies still preserve their vaccines with mercury because it's cheap. War still defines us: Louisa was for the Civil War and nearly gave her life for it. Bakke was against the Vietnam War and plotted violence against the government. We still destroy and are destroyed. High-minded authors were certainly for equal rights, except that Nathaniel Hawthorne ranted to his publisher that 'America is now wholly given over to a d****d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash.' In 1870, 'Louisa made more money than any other living America author.' Since she died, 118 years ago, our technology has changed greatly. Our brash, greedy, materialistic, idealistic country seems not to have changed much at all." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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