Before ‘Little Women,’ Louisa May Alcott found inspiration in a Civil War hospital

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Belle Montgomery

2nd Lieutenant
Oct 25, 2017
Louisa May Alcott was a runner. Of the many fascinating details that come to life in Samantha Seiple’s new book, “Louisa on the Front Lines,” this one is particularly telling. Just think about it. More than 100 years before running became a popular sport, Alcott ran for the sheer joy of it, faster than all the boys in her village — and presumably in leather shoes and long, heavy skirts. It is a revealing insight that lets us know there is nothing old-fashioned about the author of “Little Women.” Alcott was way ahead of her time.

Somewhat fittingly, “Louisa on the Front Lines” isn’t a traditional biography, checking the boxes of the events and dates, although it does cover much of her life. Instead it focuses primarily on the pivotal six weeks when Alcott worked as a nurse in Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, an experience that sparked her literary coming of age. Seiple paints a compelling picture of the upbringing and personal traits that drew Alcott to volunteer and the tremendous impact her experience as a nurse had on her later life and work. In a larger sense, it is the story of a woman finding her voice in a society that offered women very constrained and narrow roles.



The first chapters fill in the backstory to Alcott’s fateful decision — as she would later describe it — to go to war. Despite constantly living on the edge of poverty, Lu (as Alcott was commonly known) crossed paths with some of the most famous literary and philosophical figures of her day....
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