Category: Historical Fiction

Mistress of the Ritz

Cover image for Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjaminby Melanie Benjamin

ISBN 9780399182242

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “This is what an occupation does—it wears you down until you accept evil. Until you can no longer fully define it, even. Let alone recognize it.”

When American actress Blanche Ross marries French hotelier Claude Auzello, she gives up a free-wheeling lifestyle for a more staid existence as the wife of the manager of the beautiful and famous Hotel Ritz, on the Place Vendome. Marrying in haste, they soon find themselves at loggerheads over their differing expectations. Over decades, they broker a fractious peace, but all of that is swept aside when the Nazis occupy Paris, and make the Ritz their headquarters. Now the Auzellos are faced with a deeper question; do they acquiesce or resist?

Mistress of the Ritz is told in alternating chapters, beginning with the Auzellos whirlwind courtship in 1923, and then jumping ahead to the Occupation in 1940. However, Melanie Benjamin often blurs these distinctions, switching to the 1940s, only to have Blanche spend pages reminiscing about the events that were recounted in the earlier chapter. The novel is based on true events, but in the Author’s Note, Benjamin concedes that the historical record of the Auzellos is so slight that most of the book comes from giving her imagination free rein. This takes fullest expression in the character of Lily Kharmanyoff, an unlikely friend who pushes Blanche to question her comfortable situation.

The relationship between Claude and Blanche is the lens for the rest of the story. There is always a third in their marriage, and sometimes a fourth. They both love the Hotel Ritz; it is the child they never had. Yet Claude’s emphasis on the duties of his job, and his conformation to the establishment’s conservative and old-fashioned rules inevitably causes tension with his independent-minded wife. While some American women found more freedom in pre-war Paris, Blanche is stifled by Claude’s unfamiliar French Catholic world-view. When Claude takes up visiting a mistress on Thursday nights, and forthrightly explains this to Blanche in French fashion, the fissures in their marriage only widen. It is on this cracked foundation that they become the managers of the Nazi’s Paris headquarters, walking a fine line between collaboration and resistance. Unable to quite trust one another, they must make their own decisions about how to protect the staff, the hotel, and their secrets while avoiding retribution from their occupiers.

Benjamin sets up two facts as points of suspense which are of questionable effectiveness, in that the reader is not likely to be surprised or deceived. Part way through the book, Claude begins receiving mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. He tells Blanche he has taken another mistress, but it is immediately clear that this not the case, though Benjamin obfuscates for a hundred pages. The reader is unlikely to be surprised by the revelation that he is working with the Resistance, so this point is only useful in heightening the tension between Claude and Blanche. Such devices, carried out too long, begin to make to protagonist look unobservant. At the same time, Benjamin veils Blanche’s origins with questionable effectiveness, trying to play her Jewish heritage off as a big reveal towards the end of the book. Leaving aside the fact that no one’s identity is a plot twist, Benjamin also sacrifices the opportunity to explore the emotional implications Blanche must have felt, living as a secret Jew under the nose of the Nazi command in Paris. This aspect of her psyche was much more interesting to me than her tribulations as the wife of a condescending philanderer, but the latter receives much greater emphasis.

You might also like A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

by Sara Collins

ISBN 978-0-06-285189-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “But this is a story of love, not just murder, though I know that’s not the kind of story you’re expecting. In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who’d want to read one of those?”

Frances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But The Confessions of Frannie Langton is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers, George and Marguerite Benham, to whom she was given by her former master, though in London she is technically free. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station.

The frame narrative finds the former slave known as Frances Langton in her cell at Newgate prison, furtively scribbling her “confessions” to her lawyer, whom she addresses as “you.” The lawyer has begged her to give him something—anything—that will help him in his defense of her, for to this point she has maintained that she remembers nothing of the night the Benhams were murdered. But Frances has her own ideas about the story she wants to tell, and she will not pander to the judge, the jury, or anyone else. Newspaper clippings, court transcriptions, and extracts from the diary of George Benham are interspersed between her chapters so that we see Frances largely through her own eyes, but occasionally catch glimpses of how she was seen by those around her.

By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She is a keen observer, though she often deludes herself in the matter of love, losing sight of that which would normally be obvious to her keen intellect. “Sometimes I picture all that reading and writing as something packed inside me. Dangerous as gunpowder. Where has it got me, in the end?” she laments. She wants to be seen, but every time she reveals her true self, she is forcibly reminded that “there are many who find an educated black more threatening than a savage one.”

Frances consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. “What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it,” she warns. Collins nods to the real slave narratives of the period, naming one of the characters Olaudah, in reference to Olaudah Equiano, and Frances takes her name from Francis Barber. But Frannie is determined to write her own story on her own terms, even if “most publishers can’t see past their noses. Probably not far enough to see a woman like me.” She spends little time on her slave upbringing in Jamaica, focusing instead on her fate after her owner brought her to London and turned her over to fellow scientist George Benham. But it is Mrs. Benham who becomes the centre of Frannie’s world, bright and shining, but also eccentric and troubled, descending further into laudanum addiction every day.

Although framed by a murder mystery, the novel is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance. Frannie’s greatest defense also condemns her. “I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done,” she opens the book. And it is here her heart remains throughout the story, leading towards the inevitable tragedy, and final revelation of her trial.

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Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Learning to See

by Elise Hooper

ISBN 978-0-06-268653-4

“I could tell my commercial success put off some of the men who been working for a long time. They viewed me as a hack. After all, what did I know? I was just taking pictures of rich people. All of their talk about artistic philosophy and technique made me feel inferior and bored me to tears.”

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, an unlikely figure took up the calling of capturing for posterity the breadlines, shantytowns, and migrant farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange was a portrait photographer, sought after by the elite of San Francisco society. Though she was friends with members of the city’s prestigious f/64 photography club, such as Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, she was not a participant, perhaps because her work was considered too commercial. But as her rich clientele dwindled, Lange took up her camera for a new purpose, capturing many of the most famous images of the Great Depression as we remember it today. In Learning to See, Elise Hooper fictionalizes Lange’s journey from New Jersey girl to San Francisco society photographer to one of America’s most famous photographers of the nation’s pivotal moments.

Hooper paints a portrait of Lange as a modern, independent businesswoman and artist, who evolves into something of an artist-activist. In the afterword, Hooper notes that many of Lange’s contemporaries described her as difficult and controlling, but the novel takes Dorothea’s first-person perspective, and tries to imagine her life as she saw it herself. She expected the same degree of control over her work that her male peers enjoyed, but because she often worked for the government in the latter half of her career, she often did not have full control over her projects. She would be told where to go, and what she could and could not photograph. Her images did not belong to her, but to the various government agencies by whom she was hired by to depict the Great Depression, and then the Japanese-American internment. The latter photos were considered so incendiary that her work was impounded. Ansel Adams took her place, capturing images that were more to the government’s liking. Likewise, Lange took many photos of African-American sharecroppers who were hard hit by the depression, but the government chose not to use them, declining to make the depression a “race issue.” You can see some of Lange’s images in the back of the book.

Hooper pays particular attention to Lange’s family dynamics, from her abandonment by her father as a child, to her first marriage to painter Maynard Dixon, their two sons, and their subsequent divorce. As work dried up during the difficult years of the Depression, Lange made the wrenching decision to foster out her children so that she could keep working for the government, which required her to travel. With her husband unable to sell any of his work, she was the sole provider, a fact which strained her marriage, and caused resentment in her children. Although she enjoyed a happier second marriage, she remained responsible for the children, while neither of her husbands were ever faulted for their own part. Hooper captures this tension, deftly demonstrating the constraints that limited a working woman artist at the time; without birth control or childcare, she was at the mercy of childrearing responsibilities, and judged harshly for any she dared to throw off.

In addition to Dorothea’s marriages, Hooper pays special attention to two of her friendships, first with Fronsie Ahlstrom, the girl with whom she traveled to San Francisco in the first place. Hooper acknowledges that Fronsie mostly disappears from Lange’s biographies after this period, and that her role in the novel is largely fictionalized. However, Dorothea’s relationship with fellow photographer Imogen Cunningham was better documented—in fact, Cunningham was the original subject of Hooper’s project before the research trail led her to Lange instead. These two friendships buttress the narrative, providing the support that the men so easily overlook.

Hooper spends the first part of the book fully setting the scene and chronicling Lange’s development. While this part of the story is slower, it gives weight to Lange’s evolution, and contextualizes her decisions. Learning to See begins at the end, when Dorothea receives an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective of her work in 1964. We occasionally revisit this last year of her life throughout the book, illustrating the length and strength of her friendship with Imogen, her carefully repaired relationship with her older son, and the amount of time it took for the value of her work to gain to broader recognition. While the book rushes in portions, and drags in others, the overall portrait is nevertheless fascinating.

You might also like The Other Alcott 

Canada Reads Along: Suzanne

Cover image for Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette Translated by Rhonda Mullins by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

Translated by Rhonda Mullins
ISBN 978-1-55245-347-6

“You made a hole in my mother, and I am the one who will fill it.”

Fleeing the rural life of her traditional French Catholic family, Suzanne Meloche heads for Montréal, and falls into company with the Automatists, a group of avante-garde artists and activists centred on Paul-Émile Borduas. She writes poetry, and she paints, and she will marry one of Borduas’ disciples, the painter Marcel Barbeau, and have two children by him. But motherhood and marriage will weigh her down, until she runs away once again, leaving her children behind. In Suzanne, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette attempts to make sense of the life of her grandmother, a woman she never really knew, but whose choices sent profound ripples down through the generations of her descendants. To her, she was simply the woman who abandoned her mother, but in writing the biographical novel of her life, she reveals her grandmother to be that, and so much more.

 Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s biographical novel of her grandmother’s life was published in French in 2015 as La femme qui fuit, or The woman who flees, it has been translated into English by Rhonda Mullins, who was also the translator of 2015 Canada Reads contender And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier.  Suzanne is, rather unusually, largely told in the second person, the author dictating her grandmother’s actions back to her, a mode that feels simultaneously interrogative and perhaps somewhat impertinent. A quick look at the original French confirmed my suspicion that Barbeau-Lavalette writes of her grandmother using the more informal, less respectful “tu” rather than the more formal, or respectful “vous” pronoun. She is at once trying to get closer to her, and denying her the deference usually conveyed upon an elder. She approaches the woman and her legacy defensively, still nursing the hurt done to her own beloved mother.

On the other side, Barbeau-Lavallette seems to have little curiosity or attention for her grandfather, Marcel, who agreed to terminate his parental rights so that Suzanne could place the children for adoption. Prior to the termination, he had left Suzanne alone in a farmhouse with two young children, while he travelled to New York to pursue his artistic career. Perhaps somewhat unfairly, it is Suzanne who, as a mother and a woman, bears the brunt of judgement for this abandonment. Barbeau-Lavallette’s mother, Manon, would be raised by her paternal aunts, but her uncle was adopted out and raised by strangers. Marcel largely disappears from the pages when he and Suzanne go their separate ways, but he was still alive when La femme qui fuit was published, and Barbeau-Lavallette thanks him in the acknowledgements.

Suzanne is defended on the Canada Reads 2019 debates by actor Yanic Truesdale. The questions on Day Two focused on the quality of the writing and the immersiveness of setting in the remaining four books. Lisa Ray lauded Suzanne’s lyrical writing, and said that it was the only book besides her own that moved her to tears. Perhaps surprisingly, none of the panelists seemed to take issue with the choice of a second person narrator, a traditionally unpopular form. However, Chuck Comeau expressed that as a parent, he had a hard time connecting with the emotion of the character, even though he understood that the context of Suzanne’s life was very different from his own.

In the discussion of setting, Ziya Tong mounted the most direct attack on Suzanne, arguing that much of the setting was irrelevant, because Suzanne was a marginal character in her own story. She was simply swept into events such as the Civil Rights movement and the Freedom Rides, but these backdrops were not the result of some deep conviction on her part. When Truesdale countered that the core of the story was about forgiveness, she also suggested that since Forgiveness won last year’s Canada Reads debates, it was not the appropriate theme for this year’s discussion. (Last year’s theme was actually “One book to open your eyes.”)

Truesdale mounted a valiant defence of his book’s unlikeable protagonist, despite the fact that his own father abandoned him at the age of two. Truesdale argued that Suzanne is not about excusing her actions, but about contextualizing her decisions, and Barbeau-Lavalette’s journey of understanding and forgiveness. It is a deeply humanizing act of artistic transformation. He found an ally in Lisa Ray, who suggested that as actors, the two were able to embrace Suzanne’s character and find a way into her pain without judging her. She also argued that no one would judge a male artist, such as Picasso, so harshly for making a similar choice, and Truesdale pointed to the father, Marcel Barbeau, as just such an example.

When the ballots were cast, Truesdale voted against By Chance Alone, arguing that it was less powerful than some of the others. Brother received one strike from Joe Zee, who said he changed his vote from Suzanne because he was persuaded by Lisa Ray’s argument that we would not judge a man the same way. Ray cast her own vote against Homes, while Chuck Comeau called out Suzanne, again saying that her actions were inconceivable to him. This put the deciding vote in Ziya Tong’s hands, and she made Suzanne the second book to be voted off of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up with Canada Reads 2019 starting here!

The Underground Railroad

Cover image for The Underground Railroad by Colson Whiteheadby Colson Whitehead

ISBN 978-0-385-54236-4

“Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.”      

Cora is a third-generation slave born on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been a stray since the age of ten, when her mother became the only slave to ever escape the plantation, evading an infamous bounty hunter in the process. Since then, Cora has lived in Hob, the cabin for outcast slaves rejected even by their own people. So when Caesar approaches her about running North, Cora assumes it is a joke, or worse, a trap. The punishment for even discussing escape could be death. But Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, and when the balance of power on the Randall plantation shifts, running starts to seem like an option worthy of consideration. Via the lines of the Underground Railroad, Cora will live many lives after she escapes Randall, but the shadow of slavery will pursue her wherever she goes.

In Colson Whitehead’s imagining, the railroad that spirits Cora and Caesar to freedom is real and literal, rather than metaphorical. However, this is as far as Whitehead takes it; the railroad is a tool that enables him to transport Cora easily from place to place, through the different incarnations of the Black experience of America. He does not spend his time developing the premise of the railroad, or linger on the journey, though there is a nod to the fact that building and ventilating such a network would be a mighty feat of engineering. Rather, the railroad is a curious detail that adds atmosphere to the story, and facilitates Cora’s development as a character in the various chapters of her life. Whitehead delivers his fantastic additions in a matter-of-fact tone that causes them to blend seamlessly into the more factual aspects of the narrative, as he presents the horrors of slavery with equal directness.

The Underground Railroad is divided into episodes punctuated by the steps of Cora’s journey towards the promised freedom of the North. It is not a story delineated by strict notions of time; Whitehead freely borrows episodes and details from later periods to create amalgams. The trip from Georgia to South Carolina is not just a crossing of a state line, but in many ways takes Cora and Caesar into the concerns of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century free Blacks, confronted with the eugenics movement and  medical experimentation on non-consenting parties. Across the border again, into North Carolina, Whitehead conjures a white supremacist separatist state where Blacks can be executed on sight. Here we find echoes of the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s sojourn in her Amsterdam attic, as well as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Although Whitehead plays fast and loose with the facts, he does so in a way that condensed the impact of the real events that inspired his fictions and elaborations. After South Carolina, there is a sense of dread that hangs over the book. Freedom feels elusive, perhaps even delusional, with each new fresh start less hopeful than the last. While starting over from each new location and perspective was occasionally tiresome, the technique was effective in building that sense of dread, and the niggling question about whether Cora can ever truly be free in a country built on the back of slave labour. When we leave Cora on the road, her next destination and chapter unwritten ahead of her, I wanted to believe she might still find true freedom, but could no longer quite bring myself to believe it could be true. In this way, The Underground Railroad has haunted me long past the final page.

You might also like Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyanby Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

Disclaimer:  I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

In her trademark exquisite prose, Esi Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, unexpectedly freed by a fight between Erasmus and Christopher in which he is a proxy, he discovers that there is little call for—or acceptance of—a Black man with such skills. He is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked. His freedom proves to be a complex thing.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though he does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was rebelling against in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take him to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. The reader will not lack for entertainment on this account, however it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes this novel unforgettable.

Pachinko

Cover image for Pachinko by Min Jin LeeMin Jin Lee

ISBN 978-1-4555-6392-0

All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this?

When teenage Sunja meets Koh Hansu in the market of her small Korean village of Busan, she has no idea that their love affair will irrevocably alter the fates of all the generations of her family that will follow after her. Pregnant and unwed, she makes a marriage of convenience with a kindly Korean Christian pastor, who is on his way to Japan to minister to the downtrodden Korean community there. Soon the separation from Korea becomes permanent, as World War II destroys fortunes, and then the Korean War rends their homeland in two. Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in Japan, will live their lives and likely die there, but they will never be Japanese. Brothers Noa and Mozasu follow this fate down different paths, grappling with what it means to be a “good Japanese” or a “good Korean,” and who you are when you have no place to call home.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Pachinko fictionalizes the Koreans who arrived in Japan during the colonial period, and the succeeding generations who found themselves stateless after Korea was divided, and Japan refused to recognize them as citizens. Many generations of Korean Japanese would never see Korea, and yet would be unable to claim the land where they were born as their home. It is a narrative that is at once sweeping and minute, capturing three wars and four generations, and yet also sinking down into the day to day lives of the Baek family as they struggle to make their way in Japan.

Min Jin Lee relies on third person omniscient narration, which can comfortably encompass the many successive generations of characters born into the Baek family. This allows for deep insight into each subsequent character as they take their place at the heart of the story for a time, before passing the torch to the next generation. Interestingly, however, I found that I related more to the older characters who we get to spend more time with. While I had more in common with the younger generations, like Mozasu’s son Solomon, and his girlfriend, Phoebe, I was less interested in their stories. Nevertheless, Lee’s characters and the history that propels them are what gives Pachinko its depth. I was particularly compelled by the friendship that develops between Sunja, and her sister-in-law, Kyung-hee. Kyung-hee knows the truth about Sunja’s marriage to Isak, but she never shuns or judges her. Rather, the two women become allies, and it is through the strength of this bond that they carry the family through its many trials.

Thematically, Pachinko is about the experience of otherness in various forms. For the first generation of Koreans, it is being away from home in a strange land where they are considered less-than. For their children, it is being born in Japan but never accepted as Japanese. And later in the novel, Lee begins to introduce alienated Japanese, like Haruki, Etsuko, and Hana, who struggle with the strictures that are supposed to define their Japanese identities. Haruki is gay, and has a disabled brother, both shameful facts in a conformist society. He keeps his sexuality a secret, even marrying a woman of his mother’s choice. After his mother’s death, he is faced with social pressure to put his brother in an institution. Etsuko is rejected by mainstream society after her affair and divorce, and is left feeling unable to marry the Korean Japanese man she loves, because it would further disgrace her family. Her daughter Hana already lives in the shadow of Etsuko’s divorce, and finds her options limited by the taint of her mother’s fallen reputation. Their fates wend together with the Baek family, exploring how the strictures impact Japanese and Koreans alike.

Pachinko is a striking portrait of both struggle and family, and how the one shapes the other. As the author herself put it an interview with The Atlantic, “even in darkness, there are still weddings. There are still children. There’s laughter. You can’t just look at the dark and you can’t just look at the light: Real human lives are a constant interplay of light and dark.”

___

You might also like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Little Women/The Other Alcott

Cover image for Little Women by Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott / Elise Hooper

ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340

“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.

What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.

One of May Alcott's original illustrations for the first edition of Little Women, 1868While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.

If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.

The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.