April 7 2010 12:00 AM

Novel speculates on secret romantic life of ’Little Women’ author


Tongues will be a-waggin’, thanks to “The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott” by former Lansingite Kelly O’Connor McNees.

In her debut novel, McNees tells the credible but fictional tale of a romancethat might have taken place between Alcott and a young man during the summer of 1855 when the Alcott family moved to the small New Hampshire town of Walpole. At the time, Alcott had already written a book, but “Little Women” was still 13 years away.

The author was able to construct this affair due to the paucity of records about Alcott’s personal life. In the face of stardom, the very private Alcott destroyed her personal records and letters and blacked out portions of her journals, leaving this “lost summer” open for speculation and a writer’s imagination.

Alcott was considered a spinster, but as McNees quotes from” Little Women”: “Don’t laugh at spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under their sober gowns.”

The author of one of the most-read books about a young girl and coming-of-age may have tipped her hand with that one sentence.

In McNees’ book, the summer of 1885 sees the Alcott family moving once more due to their father’s philosophy of not embracing work. Alcott’s father was a transcendentalist, the friend of numerous of the movement’s leaders, and the living he did make was as a public speaker. One of the transcendentalists, Nathaniel Hawthorne, plays a major role in McNees’ book when he provides the fire for young romance by giving Alcott a copy of Walt Whitman’s freshly minted “Leaves of Grass.”

That would be the unexpurgated version. At the time of the lost summer Alcott, 22, had already focused her entire life on being a writer and supporting her family.

That is, until she meets the fictional Joseph Singer, the son of a Walpole merchant. Even then, Alcott, after being asked by her younger sister, Anna, if she noticed the “handsome” Singer responds, “I was thinking of people who aren’t even real. As always.”

McNees said that after reading “Little Women” as a young girl that she could not get the author out of her mind.

As an adult, McNees found herself drawn to the biography of Alcott written by Martha Saxton. She then attacked other biographies, each with a different take on the enigmatic writer.

“I was curious about that ending of ‘Little Women’ (which has caused much consternation for readers and scholars) and asked, ’What if there was some explanation?’”

The final impetus for McNees’ book came when she ran across an observation of the son of Hawthorne and an Alcott family friend, who asked in his memoir how Louisa could write so passionately about a love affair without ever experiencing one.

In writing her novel, McNees did extensive research on everything from clothing of the era to its sexual mores. And it’s fair to say, McNees used her University of Michigan degree in English to populate the book with some of America’s most famous 19th-century writers.

“I would come to things in the story I had to find the answer to before I could move forward,” she said.

McNees said that as a writer, Alcott was an inspiration.

“She was so determined; she had a sense of believing in self and was determined to be a writer. For the time, she was unconventional and just lived her life.”

McNees said she experienced some of the same feelings of self-doubt as Alcott in wondering if she could ever become a writer.

Fans of Alcott will love the book both for its mid-19th-century feel and style and for pushing the envelope about what is known about Alcott.

For readers who want something a little more hardboiled, McNees suggests they check out the “blood and thunder” books Alcott wrote
under the pseudonym AM Barnard to support herself and her family. In
one book, “A Long Fatal Love Chase,” a stalker pursues a woman across

Even after Alcott was richer beyond her imagination, McNees said she continued to write her thrillers.

“She loved fiery, violent, thrilling tales, and continued writing them even when no one would publish them. She had an itch Singers she had to on scratch.”

Jo March, look out.

Kelly O’Connor

p.m. Sunday, April 11

Schuler Books & Music

2820 Towne Center Blvd.


(517) 316-7495