Two sisters, Taylor and Victoria, discover an old manuscript of poems tucked away behind a wall on the site of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, MA. The mysterious woman, who wrote the lines over 150 years ago, shared a strong connection with Alcott. The poet would never know the life-changing influence of her unpublished and very relevant poetry on these two young women’s lives.
Sisterhood, friendships and belonging; a passion for writing, the cost of betrayal, and the hard work of reconciliation fill the pages of The Orchard House (Tyndale), the latest historical romance novel by Heidi Chiavaroli. A time-slip story, the book covers two distinct periods: the present moment, where we encounter Taylor and Victoria Bennett, and 1865, where we meet the poet Johanna Suhre Bancroft and her friend Louisa May Alcott. Each set of characters experience a similar course in their lives; one leads to tragedy while the other leads to reconciliation.
PARALLEL EXPERIENCES MORE THAN 150 YEARS APART
Taylor and Victoria began as best friends. In her teenage years, Taylor lost her family and became a foster child. She became Victoria’s sister through her adoption by the Bennets. The two girls, who lived down the street from Orchard House, shared an interest in writing and a love of Louisa May Alcott. Victoria is the more prolific writer while Taylor doubts her ability. Yet as they grow into adulthood, Victoria stops writing, becoming the director of Orchard House and the wife of Taylor’s first love, Will. Taylor would flee to California, estranged from her sister and best friend, to become a bestselling novelist.
Meanwhile, in 1865, Louisa May Alcott wrote a letter to Johanna, the sister of a recently deceased soldier Louisa had nursed during the Civil War named John Suhre. She presented a glowing report of John, calling him her “Prince of Patients.” She and Johanna developed a friendship, leading Louisa to invite Johanna to Concord. While staying with the Alcotts, Johanna meets and falls in love with the handsome Nathan Bancroft. At first, they enjoyed a happy marriage, but soon, Nathan revealed his darker side.
It is here where the two stories begin to parallel each other, involving writing, strained friendships and abusive marital relations. Johanna’s experiences, documented in her poetry, lead Taylor and Victoria back to each other, but it will take a long time for certain wounds to heal. The new-found religious faith of their mother Lorraine, recovering from cancer, would aid in their reconciliation.
A REFRESHING PORTRAYAL OF ALCOTT’S COMPASSION
I very much enjoyed The Orchard House and had no difficulty in navigating these two timelines. The author expertly leads the reader through the stories with topics relevant to both time periods. She has a transparent writing style that makes reading the book a pleasure. The characters are complex, well-developed, and believable. Writers often portray Louisa May Alcott as headstrong and curmudgeonly; Chiavaroli presented Alcott’s strengths, but also her tenderness and compassion inspired by her belief in “The Almighty Friend.” I did not want this book to end.
Although this novel is meant to appeal to readers of Little Women, I feel that fans of Louisa May Alcott will appreciate it even more. Alcott’s life goes well beyond Little Women with Chiavaroli revealing the lesser-known experience of Louisa’s service as a Civil War nurse. When you finish reading this book, I recommend Hospital Sketches by Alcott to find out more about her time as a nurse and discover why her time with John Suhre was so meaningful.
I highly recommend The Orchard House, a warm, compelling read and a great way to pass the cold and dreary days of winter.
Q&A WITH HEIDI CHIAVAROLI
Q: Is it fair to say that reconciliation is the theme of this story? What made you decide on this theme?
A: Reconciliation is definitely a core theme of The Orchard House, though I also sought to tie in matters of sisterhood, friendship, and helping the downtrodden — themes I found both in Little Women and in Louisa May Alcott’s life.
I might be an odd author in this regard, but I never set out to write a theme. Instead, the theme emerges from my characters. Usually, they are themes that have either hit home for me or that I’m currently wrestling with myself. I’m hoping the themes of forgiveness, friendship, helping the oppressed, and finding a place to belong will resonate with my readers.
Q: Are all of your books set up like The Orchard House, as split-time stories? What made you decide to write this way? How did you learn to develop this technique so that the reader could easily follow the plots?
A: So far, all of my books are split-time stories. I started out by writing historical fiction. I loved history and I loved the research. But I also really appreciated a good contemporary story. I was first introduced to split-time stories by Susan Meissner. Her books The Shape of Mercy and A Fall of Marigolds set my creative mind on fire. I was drawn to the depth of her novels, but also how she connected the past to the present. In my view, there wasn’t anything better than that!
Learning how to write one story with two timelines was definitely a challenge, yet in some ways, it felt completely natural. A big part of the weaving of my stories is to address an internal struggle my characters are having. Even though my contemporary characters may be centuries along in technological advancement, there are some struggles as old as time — that’s where I so often find the power of connection between my historical and contemporary characters.
Q: What drew you to Louisa May Alcott? Was it her writing, her life, or both?
A: Definitely both, but I think even more so was a tender, first-hand experience I had at the age of twelve when my grandmother took me to visit Louisa’s Orchard House. I was an enthusiastic reader and writer, and a fan of Little Women, so this was a real treat. But even I wasn’t prepared for what would stir in my soul that day.
Standing in Louisa’s bedroom, staring at the desk where she wrote her literary masterpiece, I realized that in that moment, I was the closest one to where she birthed her story. There was something special about that place, something almost magical. I imagined Louisa sitting before me, fervently scribbling. That was the moment that my passion for history really came alive, and it’s one of the reasons I always use the power of setting to connect the timelines in my stories. It was also the moment where I became enamored not just with Little Women, but with the woman behind the story’s creation.
Q: Describe the research that you conducted for this book.
A: A lot of reading! I read a couple of biographies of Louisa but also dove into her journals and letters. It made me appreciate who she was — made me see she was much more than Jo March. Her life was filled with challenges, and yet it made me respect her all the more. I appreciated the honesty and authenticity I saw in her, the insight and wisdom and humor displayed in her writings.
I read Hospital Sketches, an account of her time as a nurse during the Civil War. I also read and studied several of her lesser-known stories that I wanted to include in The Orchard House such as Moods and A Long Fatal Love Chase, which wasn’t published until 1995. When I learned of the unique timeline of that story, I knew I had to include it in both my historical and my present-day timeline.
Q: Were you drawn to Louisa’s religious beliefs? Those who study Alcott do not discuss it often. Is her spirituality part of what inspired and formed the basis of this book?
A: I was very drawn to Louisa’s spiritual beliefs. My faith is important to me and a part of all of my books, so I was especially on the lookout for Louisa’s own beliefs in my research. I saw her desire to help the oppressed and to act with justice and mercy as an extension of her faith. At the same time, she had little patience for those who claimed to know God but acted in unloving and hypocritical ways. She seemed to connect to God more through nature and the extension of justice and love than through organized religion. This was a rather unorthodox way of belief for a woman in the 1860s, but that shouldn’t surprise us when it comes to Louisa!
Q: Louisa was a difficult person and she is often portrayed as curmudgeonly by other fiction writers, but your portrayal of her was far more balanced and sympathetic, showing a softer side through her compassion for Johanna. Did Hospital Sketches influence the way you portrayed Louisa?
A: Yes, Hospital Sketches definitely influenced how I portrayed Louisa. You could see her immense capacity for compassion in this account, especially when it came to her “prince of patients,” John Suhre. But I think her tenderness is seen in her other writings as well, particularly Little Women. Who hasn’t been touched by the gesture of the March sisters giving up their Christmas breakfast for the Hummels? Or inspired by the selfless charity Beth extends not just to the poorer family, but to her own? How it both breaks Jo’s heart and inspires her character?
And yet, Louisa was a difficult person too. And yes, very outspoken — something I love about her. She longed for a sense of justice she didn’t see playing out in her life — or in the lives of the poor and marginalized. She had a heart for the plight of the African, for the women who couldn’t vote or were oppressed by unloving husbands who drank too much. She was impatient with the misuse of power by men who spoke down to her or didn’t give her the credit due her simply because of her sex.
She saw the reality of things and then saw how they were hidden in an attempt to put on a good face. I believe this is what frustrated her and emerged as the “difficult” we sometimes see. But as I read her journals and letters — and yes, Hospital Sketches! — I couldn’t help but also see the tenderness that lived within her and made Little Women one of the best-loved books of all time.