Goodreads: Sorrows, Scribbles, & Russet Leather Boots
Age Category: Upper Middle Grade/Young Adult
Moody and restless, teenage Louisa longed for freedom. Faced with the expectations of her loving but hapless family, the Alcotts, and of nineteenth-century New England society, Louisa struggled to find her place. On long meandering runs through the woods behind Orchard House, she thought about a future where she could write and think and dream. Undaunted by periods of abject poverty and enriched by friendships with some of the greatest minds of her time and place, she was determined to have this future, no matter the cost.
Drawing on the surviving journals and letters of Louisa and her family and friends, author and poet Liz Rosenberg reunites Louisa May Alcott with her most ardent readers. In this warm and sometimes heartbreaking biography, Rosenberg delves deep into the oftentimes secretive life of a woman who was ahead of her time, imbued with social conscience, and always moving toward her future with a determination that would bring her fame, tragedy, and the realization of her biggest dreams.
Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots brings the author of Little Women to life for a new generation of readers. With its younger audience in mind, the book attempts to balance the tribulations of Louisa May Alcott’s life with the moments of joy she found in her family, her vacations, and her career. The biography feels comprehensive without feeling overly detailed or too long. Fans of Little Women will not want to miss this insider’s look at the real-life Jo March.
Louisa May Alcott’s life is compelling in large part because it feels so contradictory. Alcott grew up in a poor household with a transcendentalist father who cared more for his ideals than for feeding and housing his family. Louisa went to work at a young age to help keep the family afloat, and she never did stop caring for her parents. When she died, she was still busy supporting her widowed older sister Anna, Anna’s two sons, her invalid father, and her deceased sister’s daughter Lulu. She did this while suffering from the effects of what many consider to be mercury poisoning–the result of the calomel treatment she received for the typhoid fever she caught while working as a Union Army nurse. And yet, Alcott never stopped loving her family and even seemed to cherish her time growing up. Her appreciation for her family and many of the freedoms she enjoyed are evident in her fictionalized account of her formative years in Little Women.
Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots pulls back the curtain on Alcott’s life, however, showing just how bleak it could sometimes be. Like Jo, Alcott often felt lonely, overworked, and jealous of the lives of her sisters–Anna with her comfortable home and May with her ability to travel abroad and pursue her artistic interests. When trouble arrived, the family always looked to Louisa to fix things. Glimpses of potential romances Alcott may or may not have had make the store even more bittersweet. “Couldn’t be!” Louisa wrote of one Polish boy she met, and tore out the journal entries about their time together before she died. Louisa’s first duty always seemed to be to her family, and it seems that, even though they recognized her failing health, they did not do much to lighten her burdens.
This combination of good times with the bad is what makes Alcott’s story so poignant. And Liz Rosenberg effectively highlights the contradictions, even as she perhaps makes them a bit more palatable for her audience. What Rosenberg does most effectively, however, is highlight just how remarkable Alcott was–a true visionary, dedicated to abolitionism, women’s rights, and the poor. Alcott was generous with her money, too, generously funding the causes she advocated for, always trying to be of practical use (unlike her philosophizing father and his friends). This side of Alcott–radical social reformer–is not one readers often associate with the author.
The biggest flaw of Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots is that it lacks any period photographs, instead including illustrations from Diana Sudkya. The illustrations are utterly charming (though they feel a bit young for the subject matter and intended audience). They are not, however, the same as actual photographs of Louisa and her family, and I found myself searching for these after I finished the book. Historical photographs and sketches give a lot more context, showing how haggard Alcott looked as her health failed her, and giving more weight and sorrow to her story. I was also fascinated by some of May Alcott’s artistic works, which are referenced in the book, but, again, not included as photographs.
Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots will appeal to fans of Louisa May Alcott and her work. It is a highly readable and engaging biography that details the sorrows of Alcott’s life without getting bogged down in them. A wonderful way to introduce new fans to her work, as well.