Little Women, a Civil War-based novel about the four March sisters and derived from the life of its author, Louisa May Alcott, has been a classic for well over 100 years. As a result, much has been written about Alcott, both for adults and younger readers. Biographer and young adult writer Liz Rosenberg takes on the difficult task of adding to this canon, succeeding with her outstanding new book, Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott (Candlewick).

Rosenberg brings a fresh and lively perspective to Alcott’s story. Although geared toward young adults (with the inclusion of bold illustrations by Diana Sudyka), anyone interested in Alcott’s life will find this book compelling and entertaining. Rosenberg’s penetrating insight gives even the most knowledgeable reader a reason to re-examine the facts. Although Rosenberg’s own voice is evident in the writing, her point of view does not interfere with the story but rather enhances it. 

ALCOTT’S REAL LIFE IS ALMOST BETTER THAN HER FICTION

Alcott’s life was rich, full of conflict, dazzling creativity, difficult trials, growth, irony and amazing triumphs. It almost reads better than her fictionalized account in Little Women. As well done as Rosenberg’s treatment is of the early years of Alcott’s life (which parallels that of the March sisters), it is the book’s second half, beginning with Louisa’s service as a Civil War nurse, that truly sparkles. Another highlight is Rosenberg’s fascinating analysis of Louisa’s writing process in the creation of Little Women.

Rosenberg cites extensively from primary sources, including journals and letters from different family members. What I found refreshing is that she did not rely on the same quotes that most biographers employ but instead referenced lesser-known comments, adding significantly to the interest of the text.

Rosenberg takes an objective look at Louisa, her sisters and her parents, neither lionizing nor condemning any member even though Louisa’s father, Bronson, often invokes a strong reaction from those acquainted with his life’s story. In her acknowledgments, Rosenberg writes, “Some biographers paint Bronson Alcott as an egocentric demon, others as a saint. I have tried to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about the whole cast of characters.”

WELL-RESEARCHED, SCHOLARLY AND EXCEEDINGLY READABLE

As someone knowledgeable about the Alcotts, I find it important to note here that some of the facts (none crucial) do not appear in chronological order. The author, however, wisely offers a disclaimer in her acknowledgments, admitting that “Few Alcott scholars agree on the truth of Alcott’s life,” thus “one must pick” when sources don’t always agree. 

Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots is a comprehensive introduction to Alcott’s life for those becoming acquainted with Louisa and her family. It is also a well-researched, scholarly, yet exceedingly readable book that will excite Alcott enthusiasts. This is a YA book that will satisfy young and old alike. It is a valuable addition to the Alcott biographical canon, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Buy this book!

Liz Rosenberg is the author of five adult novels, four books of poetry, and more than 30 books for young readers, from picture books to poetry anthologies and YA biographies. For about 25 years, she was the Book Review Columnist at the Boston Globe, and her work has been published in The New York TimesThe New Yorker, Harper’sParis Review and elsewhere. She was a 2014 Fulbright Fellow to Belfast, North Ireland. Her specialization is creative writing and American literature.