Home > The Other Alcott

The Other Alcott
Author: Elise Hooper

Chapter 1

May spent the morning in high feather preparing for the party, dusting and scrubbing the parlor as though elbow grease alone could solve everything. The persistent ticking of the small clock on the china shelf reminded her there was no time for dawdling, so she darted to the kitchen to start a batch of molasses candy and stood over the black cast-iron stove, stirring the boiling syrup around and around in foamy circles. Lost in the luxurious smell of melted butter, she was startled when Louisa burst into the kitchen, slamming the door open into the already-crumbling plaster wall.

“They’re here. The reviews are here.” Her older sister clutched a thin, brown-papered package out in front of her. Mother, their sister Anna, and Anna’s two young sons trailed behind Louisa like the tail on a kite.

May’s heart quickened, and she clapped her hands in anticipation. “Let’s all move into the parlor to hear the exciting news,” she said, thinking of her time spent sprucing up the front rooms. “Boys, please run and fetch your grandfather from the barn.”

But no one budged as Louisa ripped into the envelope.

“Heavens, you’re a savage,” Anna murmured.

Louisa’s hand trembled as she pulled out a light green piece of paper embossed with the bank’s seal and two hundred dollars written in a flowing script, an amount enough to render the group speechless. Her earlier novel, Moods, had fetched a first check of a mere twenty-five dollars. The beginnings of a smile perked at the corners of Louisa’s mouth as she laid the payment down on the kitchen table. Paper crackled as she dug back into the package and withdrew a handful of newspaper clippings. May held her breath, scarcely containing her pride. She believed the illustrations she’d produced for her sister’s book to be her finest pictures yet.

Louisa read aloud from the article: “According to The Nation, ‘Little Women will undoubtedly be this season’s novel that every American girl will want to read.’” The nephews broke into cheers while Mother and Anna clapped. May joined in with the applause, but she watched her sister scan the rest of the newspaper column. Louisa frowned for a moment before tucking the clipping under the bank check. She sifted through more pages, quoting passages full of praise, as she slid a few more of the clippings out of sight. Had anyone else noticed Louisa’s sleight of hand?

“Auntie May, the candy . . . it’s burning!” Johnny said.

May whirled around to see black smoke puffing up off the molasses. She grabbed a dish towel to cover her hand, yanked the pan off the stove top, and tumbled through the kitchen door into the backyard. Once outside, she dropped the smoldering mess on the gravel path and stared at the charred remains. A moment later, Louisa appeared in the doorway. “Are you burned?”

“No . . . I just forgot about the stove.” May smoothed down her disheveled blond hair with her hands. Nothing was going as planned. “What about the celebration? The parlor’s ready.”

Louisa took a step outside and handed May the newspaper columns from the folds of her skirt.

“You need to see these, but don’t take them too hard. After all, I’ve gotten so many rejections over the years, you’d think I’d have thrown myself off the roof long ago.”

May looked down at the papers and silently read a review from The Nation: “May Alcott’s poorly executed illustrations in Little Women betray her lack of anatomical knowledge and indifference to the subtle beauty of the female figure.” A shrill buzzing rang in her ears as she registered the meaning of the words.

She flipped to the next column from The Youth’s Companion and read: “May Alcott’s figures lack realistic proportions and look stiff.” Another clipping from Publishers’ Circular claimed: “May Alcott’s illustrations detract from the agreeable little story of Little Women.” Shame burned her face all the way to her hairline, and black speckles edged her vision as if she viewed the hazy words reflected on an old, tarnished mirror.

She looked up to find Louisa studying her.

May swallowed past the thickness of her throat. “Did you think my drawings were as bad as they say?”

“No, of course not. Now don’t get yourself into a pucker.” She smoothed the gray silk of her dress. “I know it must be a bit of a shock since everything always seems to go your way, but you’ll recover. Somehow I always do.”

“But you receive a letter in the mail from an editor saying no. Your work isn’t mocked in print for all the world to see.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. The whole world isn’t reading these reviews. And don’t expect me to apologize for my success. I’ve received my fair share of negative reviews before.” Scowling, Louisa glanced away and reached out to flick some chipping bits of dark brown paint off the side of the house. “Isn’t your new beau, Mr. Bishop, coming out from Boston for a visit today?”

What did he have to do with any of this, May thought, resisting the urge to snap at her sister. “No, tomorrow.”

“Well, then you’ll probably have forgotten all about this by tomorrow evening. You’re good about always finding enjoyments, while all I do is sit around and write. You’re lucky, you’re always full of good spirit, you don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Did a satisfied smile flash across Louisa’s face? Of course May took her art seriously, but she refused to complain about the trials of hard work. Was it so wrong to have a little amusement here and there? Louisa often complained about her younger sister’s unending stream of luck, but did she not see how hard May had been working for the last twenty-eight years of her life to make good fortune happen? She glared at her older sister, but then Louisa’s limp dark hair, parted plainly in the middle, and her complexion, pale as a hard-boiled egg, came into focus; writing Little Women within the space of a mere two months had exacted an enormous toll upon her. Louisa, once bright-eyed and vivacious, appeared to have faded and shrunk, defeated into middle age.

May straightened up and placed the clippings back into Louisa’s fingers. “I’m fine.”

“Let’s hold off on the party anyway.” Louisa folded the clippings into a neat stack in her hands. “The downstairs needs to air out from all the smoke. I’ll take the nephews into town for a treat.”

“Good idea. The little imps are in a lather over the prospect of candy.” May marveled that her voice could sound so steady, despite the sinking sensation in her belly.

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