It’s late December 2012 and I’m on the train to Concord. The branches of bare trees brush the carriages as we speed through the wilderness of Massachusetts. My mother sits beside me, we’re wrapped in elegant coats we bought at a market in Brooklyn; we are ridiculously overdressed but haven’t noticed yet.
We enter the town, just a single street with shops crammed against one another, each with a plaque showing their age and history. Concord has many stories to tell: a link in the underground railroad during the Civil War, a cemetery full of famed dead, the beginnings of the American transcendentalist movement, but we’ve come for the tale of a family of five women who each forged their own path as creatives, feminists and pioneers.
I can’t remember a time when Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women wasn’t a part of my life. Before writing the novel in her 30s, Louisa wrote everything from dramatic romances to fictionalised accounts of her experience as a nurse during the Civil War. It was the story of four sisters and their mother, all forging their own path in politically oppressive times, that resonated with people across the globe.
Concord is the place that leapt off the page to me as a child. Since then I imagined a place caked in snow: the large old houses standing tall among the trees, each packed with cosy rooms; fires lit as flakes drift to sit on window sills. This is the Concord Louisa painted for us, yet walking these streets it feels as if she forged this place with her wordsmithing; I can’t imagine it existing before her.
The Alcott residence sits a little outside the town centre. It’s a thirty-minute walk from the station to Orchard House, but in the rain and hail it feels like an extra twenty – our coats are soaked through. We arrive at a small brown house with tall windows and a quaint garden. We snuggle inside the cosy confines of a room with wooden panelling and low ceilings. The fire roars and our coats hang over chairs to dry.
We’re the only two guests of the day. Instead of walking in a packed group, an elderly woman guides just us through rooms we’ve been before, in the pages of books. We pause in each room, taking time to greet the Alcott women. The kitchen is rustic and familiar and the living room has just enough space for family gatherings – with several people piled on top of each other, though that’s how the Alcott sisters would have liked it.
This is the place I’ve been in my head again and again. Standing in the living room, thinking of Louisa, her mother and her sisters singing carols feels like the closest I can get to being with the Alcott women. The more time we spend here, the layers of fiction fall away to reveal the Alcott family: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth and May are portrayed in frame silhouette portraits on the walls beside their parents, Abigail and Amos.
As we’re guided through the tour, we learn of the family’s history – forced to move twenty-nine times because of their father’s financial instability, yet giving to every beggar and guest that came knocking.
Despite constant instability, this house was a home. There are tender touches of a family who loved each other. The piano waits in the corner of the living room where Beth would lovingly play and delight her sisters. Two lilies are painted on the walls opposite Louisa’s bed. I imagine May detailing the flowers as Louisa fought for her life, giving her sister a glimpse of the outside world while she was bedridden. The soft white strokes of paint are like prayers of love and devotion to her elder sister. Even as she travelled the world studying the arts and winning over critics, a part of May would always remain at Orchard House, her sketches scrawled across the walls of the attic.
Works on the abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage line the bookshelves, texts the Alcott women read and lived by as they harboured escaped slaves and hosted abolitionist meetings with local philosophers and poets. I spot a copy of Jo’s Boys lying open on a bookcase; the title alludes to Louisa’s intention in writing the work, to purchase a house for her nephews after the death of her sister’s husband. Louisa was a hero to her family. Their love for her is embedded in every indentation of Orchard House, where she wrote the autobiographical stories that made her a household name and provided for her family for the rest of their lives.
In the corner of her room, Louisa’s writing desk sits by the window. Sunlight filters in; the sky has cleared and the outside world appears in a sun soaked moment of stillness. The surrounding houses are all panelled in wood and painted in yellows and blues. The trees whisper in the wind. I think of Louisa, climbing the branches with her nieces and nephews and taking her daily walk up the hills. I imagine her marching into town and casting her vote in protest; it would be another thirty years after her death before the state would count her ballot. I can almost hear the sound of her pen scrawling against paper, the caress of the pages of a book. The Alcott sisters live in this house now as much as they ever did when they were alive.
I leave a piece of my heart in Concord, Massachusetts. I think of Louisa and her sisters, educated women who refused to wear corsets, were impassioned abolitionists, independent thinkers, artists and writers. I clasp my mother’s hand as the train pulls back into Boston, thinking of the gift her love has given me and the stories she’s inspired me to tell. It’s our final week in America and I’ve spent the day in the presence of family.
Written by Sam McDonald. Sam likes hiking, nature, poetry, the beach and other clichés. She’s currently doing postgrad at the University of Melbourne, but between her classes she finds the time to pet the neighbourhood cats, watch copious amounts of television and continue her search for Melbourne’s best bagels.