For readers familiar with Little Women, they know that Louisa May Alcott was inspired by her own family to pen the now classic novel. In The Revelation of Louisa May, Michaela MacColl has taken an event from Louisa May Alcott’s life and fictionalized one summer in a teen Louisa’s life. Bringing in other real-life characters, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and weaving together true facts and pieces from Alcott’s work, MacColl presents a fresh story with a hint of romance that will deeply interest readers of historical fiction.
Louisa’s mother, Marmee, as Louisa calls her, has decided to leave her family and seek work outside of Concord. Louisa’s older sister Anne has done the same, with Louisa’s parents and her younger sisters May and Beth struggling to put food on the table. Marmee and May are set to go to New Hampshire, with Louisa, Bronson (her father), and Beth staying behind. Louisa is frustrated by this turn of events, thinking that only if her father would find work, then they wouldn’t be in such a predicament. But Bronson is a Transcendentalist and refuses to work for others, even at his family’s expense. With all their credit used up in town, and tired of living off the kindness of their neighbors, like Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marmee has no option but to find work elsewhere.
Louisa, full of righteous anger at her mother’s choice, finds a fugitive slave on their property the same night her mother has voiced her decision to leave.
The Alcotts are a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Marmee is one of the volunteers. Adding to the already long list of her new responsibilities, Louisa finds herself agreeing to help make sure that the man, George, will be safe until his conductor can bring up the rest of George’s family, and take them to the next stop.
Following Marmee’s request to let Mr. Emerson know that George is in hiding with them, so as practice caution and to not inadvertently let the entire town know of George’s presence, Louisa sets off to the Emersons’. But before she can do that, a man on horseback nearly runs her down.
Frustrated and perturbed by the stranger’s recklessness, Louisa chooses wisely not to reveal too much information about herself, or Henry Thoreau, about whom the man inquires.
The stranger, trying to be charming, does tell Louisa his name, Russell Finch, before going into town.
When Louisa visits the Emersons, she catches Henry in a compromising position with Lidian Emerson, Ralph’s wife. Embarrassed by the situation, Henry attempts to change the subject by telling Louisa that Mr. Finch is a slave catcher. Henry and Mr. Finch have some sort of prior feud, and Henry is reluctant to speak to Louisa about it. Louisa, unfortunately, keeps running into Mr. Finch in town, and during one of these interactions Louisa is trying to tell the Concord conductor of the Underground Railroad, Mr. Pryor, about George. Mr. Pryor manages to distract Mr. Finch enough so that George’s location is still safe.
To further complicate things, a conniving woman named Miss Whittaker is trying to get Bronson to write for her new magazine, along with Mr. Emerson and Henry. Marmee has her worries about Miss Whittaker wheeling and dealing Bronson with her charms while she’s gone, and Marmee asks Louisa to make sure that Miss Whittaker doesn’t sink her claws into Bronson. Louisa discovers that perhaps Mr. Finch and Miss Whittaker have some sort of connection from the past, and she decides to figure out what it is.
Marmee and May leave, much to Louisa’s disdain. But with their absence, a blessing in disguise appears, in the form of Fred, a distant cousin of Louisa’s. She hasn’t seen him in some time, and he’s changed; in a good way! If Louisa didn’t already have enough to handle, as she tries to balance keeping George hidden from Mr. Finch, discovering what connection Miss Whittaker has with Mr. Finch, making sure that the Alcotts’ home is running smoothly, and attempting to avoid prying into the potential relationship happening between Lidian Emerson and Henry, Louisa finds herself in the middle of a romance with Fred! He is a partner in Louisa’s adventures, and as all the threads come to a head in an exciting climax, Louisa finds that she might have bargained for more than she expected.
Louisa wanted excitement and thrills — something to write about in her stories — and she certainly gets all of that, and more!
MacColl does a fine job of taking an intricate plot, leaving clues sprinkled throughout for the readers to guess at what will happen next. As mentioned previously, for readers of Little Women, they will be entertained with the influences MacColl has taken from the novel. Each chapter begins with a quote from Alcott’s work and has a connection to what happens in the pages that follow. Louisa May Alcott and her family are interesting character studies, and the teen Louisa in this novel is extremely likable and rather plucky! MacColl captures the overall tone of novels written in Alcott’s time, but with enough modernity so as to not bore readers unfamiliar with Alcott’s work. A very useful author’s note and further reading page are provided for readers who want to read more about Louisa May and her work.
The romance between Louisa and Fred is tame, reflecting the one that takes place between Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Though Louisa and Fred’s romance never quite takes center stage, it does fit in neatly to the plot and gives Louisa a breather from running around trying to solve the mystery happening in Concord! I do have to admit, though, as a life-long fan of Little Women, writing something to top that would be nearly impossible, but MacColl’s novel The Revelation of Louisa May is a solid read as an influence from Louisa May’s fantastic body of work.
The Revelation of Louisa May would work well as a TV mini-series, similar to the wonderful production of Anne of Green Gables (1985), and the 2009 PBS American Masters series Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, which MacColl references in her further reading list.
As Louisa, I’d cast Hailee Steinfeld, whose work in True Grit, Ender’s Game, 10,000 Saints, and the forthcoming The Keeping Room, have shown such a broad spectrum of acting. She can play tough and clever, and proved that she can translate believably in period pieces. I think she’d work well with Freddie Highmore as Fred, who, in a similar turn, has played a wide variety of characters in his relatively short acting career. His characters in August Rush and The Art of Getting By have shown that he can play sensitive characters, and as Norman in Bates Motel, he’s shown that he can play a character with secrets incredibly well!
Bronson plays a significant part in the novel, and William Hurt could bring the screen presence and bravado to the role. Though George has less page time than Bronson, his role is deeply important to the novel. Chadwick Boseman, whose roles as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get On Up have been nothing short of astonishingly good, could provide George’s character with a quiet grace that comes across so wonderfully on the page.
Sam Claflin, perhaps most well known as Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games films, would give Henry Thoreau a modest and cheeky side. Harry Treadaway (Victor Frankenstein in the delightful Showtime series Penny Dreadful) could take on Mr. Finch’s scheming, but charming, persona!
“You had me at hello.”
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.
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