By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Liz Rosenberg feels as if she’s been friends with two of her favorite authors for more than 50 years. To further that relationship, she’s published middle-grade biographies of both, first “House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery” (best known for the “Anne of Green Gables” books) and then this year “Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott.” Both works have received praise, with her latest book being called “a grand tale for present fans and future ones, too” by Kirkus Reviews.
What she discovered when researching Alcott’s life has made Rosenberg think even more highly of the author. “Louisa May Alcott has a grip on so many readers, and I think it’s because she not only was ahead of her time, she’s still ahead of ours!” Rosenberg said in an e-mail interview. “She truly believed in things like full equality among all the races, between rich and poor, men and women. Her convictions were, and are, so wild and so deep – and beyond that she’s a wonderful writer.”
It is Alcott’s writing that underlies the love many readers feel for her books, particularly “Little Women,” the first work Alcott wrote for younger readers. “She creates these unforgettable vivid scenes – Amy throwing Jo’s book into the fire; carrying their own breakfast to the poor German family; the famous death scene,” Rosenberg said. “That kind of genius stays with you, and grows with you. And that’s the other thing – she wrote the kind of book for children that stays with you for a lifetime.”
Her plan when writing these works is to remain as objective as possible. “I tried my best to keep my own theories and opinions about the Alcott family standing in the wings – visible, I think, but not center stage,” she said. “In writing biography, it’s best I believe to let the characters’ words and actions speak for themselves. The biographer is a detective. You put the facts together as best you can and present them as objectively as you can to the reader. You’re not supposed to be judge and jury. But most of all, I think biography is the story-telling of another person’s life. If you don’t shape it into an interesting story, then the biography’s not worth reading. And I love reading biography.”
Rosenberg has some personal favorites among Alcott’s works: “Little Women,’ “Jo’s Boys” and three of her essays, “How I Went out to Service,” “Transcendental Wild Oats” and “Hospital Sketches.” Rosenberg noted that “Hospital Sketches” was the “first full reportage of Civil War hospital life ever to reach readers.” The essays so impressed her that her next project will be a collection of some of Alcott’s essays.
But what she enjoyed most about working on these biographies was that she was able to spend time with the authors she loves. “I’ve written about two of my all-time favorite children’s book authors, and, of course, I’ve also loved them for more than 50 years now,” Rosenberg noted. “That’s a long friendship. It’s a peekaboo friendship that you have with your favorite writers, musicians, athletes, what-have-you. So writing biography is a wonderful way of cheating – you get to open the door and become acquainted with the real person. With luck, you only love them more the better you get to know them. Louisa was definitely like that. The more I knew of her, the more admirable and funny and lovable and surprising she became.”