The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott

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A book you can get lost in this summer

Lose yourself this summer in a new delightful book based on Louisa May Alcott’s life that you would swear was written by Ms. Alcott herself.

Lansing area native Kelly O’Connor McNees sets her inaugural novel in the summer of 1855, when Louisa is in her early 20’s. The book opens with Louisa, her parents and three sisters arriving in Walpole, New Hampshire at a summer home owned by her uncle. McNees gives us a bird’s eye view into what life might have been like for Louisa the summer before she wrote Little Women.

She not only describes the facts and circumstances of Louisa’s life, but also tries to answer the question: did Louisa, who never married but wrote so powerfully and movingly about romance, have a love interest of her own?  And to answer the question, McNees created a storyline about a relationship between Louisa and a young man who ran a shop in Walpole that could have occurred during that lost summer.

McNees relays the story with great attention to detail and in a voice that echoes Louisa’s. Here’s an excerpt:

“Wednesday was reserved for baking, and as usual Anna and Louisa rose early to help their mother,” she writes. “May lingered in her room to ‘finish her mending’ – and doze in the sunny window seat. In the bed beside her, Lizzie slept late, her fever in retreat after a restless night.”

In this historical fiction, McNees adeptly brings us into Louisa’s daily life and her parent’s circle of literary friends, including author Walt Whitman, who has just published Leaves of Grass.  Louisa takes part in the common Victorian activities such as swimming, plays and gossip.

You can tell when talking to McNees that she relishes this era. She has always loved historical fiction and developed a fondness for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which she re-read several times.

Little Women was a story that I loved and kept coming back to,” said McNees. “When I started to read her biography, I knew I wanted to write about Louisa.”

Before she sat down to write the tale, she spent a year and a half researching every finite detail of life in
the 1880s.

And once she begins to write, McNees lets the story carry her away. “I love the solitude of writing,” she said. “I reach a special level of concentration when I’m in that place.”

But unlike Louisa who tended to write until the point of exhaustion, McNees is more disciplined.  “Louisa could work feverishly,” said McNees, “Sometimes around the clock for days, and not stop until she captured all her ideas on paper and was physically and mentally exhausted.” McNees tries to find time to write every day.

A Lansing Eastern High School graduate and University of Michigan alum, McNees also earned her Master’s in Education from DePaul in Chicago. She has worked for Harper Collins in New York, lived in Rhode Island where she was a 7th grade teacher and eventually moved to Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where her husband’s job took them.

Because she didn’t have a license to teach in Canada, McNees took a job as a nanny from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and carved out time to write in the early morning.

Now they’re back in Chicago, which she calls “a great town,” and touring to promote her book. Enjoying her solitude, book touring took McNees a little out of her comfort level. “Even though I am so pleased at the great reception I’ve received from my book,” she said.

“When to write and how to write depends on the person,” said McNees. She keeps a steady, solid pace. “I have to have a daily goal,” she explained.

Her next goal is to write a book set on Mackinac Island in early 1835. “The story, a steamship journey, is a work in progress,” said McNees.

She attributes her love of writing and reading to her early education in Lansing. In her “Acknowledgements” at the end of The Lost Summer, McNees writes: “I am indebted to the people who taught me about writing and reading like a writer …” and gives special credit to Hugh Spagnuolo, her English teacher from Eastern High School.


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Tags: ann cool, kelly o'connor mcnees, the kist summer of louisa may alcott

Ann Cool

Ann Cool, MPS, is a freelance writer who lives in Mason with her husband Bob.