Category Archives: Books

Beyond Little Women

On November 1st Brad Thor tweeted, “Happy #NationalAuthorsDay everyone.”  He also attached a quote:

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.

– Richard Bach

Brad Thor is another author on my “need to read some of his novels” list, since the spy novel genre is one I do enjoy.  Don’t have any explanation for why I haven’t read any of his novels yet, but I’m moving him up on my reading list.

I admire successful writers.  For decades my writing dream has centered on writing historical romance novels, not the usual lofty aspiration of penning the next great American novel.  Of course, since I have yet to apply myself to actually writing any historical romance, my dream assuredly won’t ever come true, lol.  I hesitantly and with great trepidation began writing this blog in 2012 and thus far, that’s the extent of my writing effort.

I also admire great storytellers and I’ve met many entertaining storytellers in my life.  My great-grandmother, with her third grade education and very heavy PA Dutch accent was a gifted storyteller.  As a child I loved to sit and listen to her oft-told stories of  “when I was a young girl” or “life on the farm”.  She had a knack for using her voice to create sound effects to invoke the setting of her story, using her hands as an extension of her voice and a great sense of pacing her stories to hold your interest.  I wish I had jotted down some of her stories.

Sometimes I’ve met wonderful storytellers in doctor’s waiting rooms or even at informal gatherings.  My husband had one group of  friends when he was in the 82nd Airborne, who would often hang out at our house on weekends in the early 1980s.  These three guys would tell stories and jokes, that were more entertaining than whatever movie or show they had  playing on TV in the background.  The more they drank, the more hilarious their stories became, to the point that, me, the only one not drinking, was laughing hysterically like I was the one who was three sheets to the wind.

Last week, while browsing through my hundreds of unread and, um, mostly unopened free classics saved on my kindle, I decided to try Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott.   Alcott based the sketches on her short experience as a Civil War nurse in a makeshift hospital in Washington.  Considering the setting and subject matter, I began reading with a bit of foreboding.  Alcott did relate plenty of heart wrenching scenes, horrific injuries, primitive medical procedures, and the ever-increasing number of deaths, but along with that she added inspirational vignettes, witty observations and hilarious anecdotes.  I didn’t expect to laugh out loud reading about a Civil War hospital.

At only 60 pages, Hospital Sketches is a very quick read, but it’s enough to give you a taste of Alcott’s wicked sense of humor.   Around the Army, I found food was always a hot topic for dissection and ridicule, even though in all honesty I drew the winning ticket in the Army food lottery, during my short time in the Army.  I was sent to Fort Dix, NJ in 1979 for basic training,  My mother understandably, considering she had no familiarity with Army life, beyond TV and movies, worried that I would wither away having to eat horrible food, so she started sending care packages with homemade cookies and such.  I told her to desist, since we weren’t allowed to have that – just our mess hall food.

Actually, my Fort Dix mess hall food, being part of my winning ticket in the Army food lottery, was excellent for institution food.  I kept reassuring my mother in letters and calls that the food is very good and being one who really likes to eat, I had to worry about putting on weight, even in basic training.  When my parents came to Fort Dix for my basic training graduation, there was a food spread in the mess hall for graduates and their families.  My mother’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw a table with desserts and fruit choices replete with a fancy ice sculpture in the middle.  It was really quite impressive.  Fort Dix was where the Army trained Army cooks.  My first duty station in Germany, again, a very good mess hall and luckily for all of us, we even got some hot chow, that was tasty and plentiful,  when we went on field training exercises.

Here’s poor Louisa May Alcott’s recounting of the food during her Civil War nursing experience:

“For a day or two I managed to appear at meals; for the human grub must eat till the butterfly is ready to break loose, and no one had time to come up two flights while it was possible for me to come down. Far be it from me to add another affliction or reproach to that enduring man, the steward; for, compared with his predecessor, he was a horn of plenty; but—I put it to any candid mind—is not the following bill of fare susceptible of improvement, without plunging the nation madly into debt? The three meals were “pretty much of a muchness,” and consisted of beef, evidently put down for the men of ’76; pork, just in from the street; army bread, composed of saw-dust and saleratus; butter, salt as if churned by Lot’s wife; stewed blackberries, so much like preserved cockroaches, that only those devoid of imagination could partake thereof with relish; coffee, mild and muddy; tea, three dried huckleberry leaves to a quart of water—flavored with lime—also animated and unconscious of any approach to clearness. Variety being the spice of life, a small pinch of the article would have been appreciated by the hungry, hard-working sisterhood, one of whom, though accustomed to plain fare, soon found herself reduced to bread and water; having an inborn repugnance to the fat of the land, and the salt of the earth.

Another peculiarity of these hospital meals was the rapidity with which the edibles vanished, and the impossibility of getting a drop or crumb after the usual time. At the first ring of the bell, a general stampede took place; some twenty hungry souls rushed to the dining-room, swept over the table like a swarm of locusts, and left no fragment for any tardy creature who arrived fifteen minutes late. Thinking it of more importance that the patients should be well and comfortably fed, I took my time about my own meals for the first day or two after I came, but was speedily enlightened by Isaac, the black waiter, who bore with me a few times, and then informed me, looking as stern as fate:

“I say, mam, ef you comes so late you can’t have no vittles,—’cause I’m ‘bleeged fer ter git things ready fer de doctors ‘mazin’ spry arter you nusses and folks is done. De gen’lemen don’t kere fer ter wait, no more does I; so you jes’ please ter come at de time, and dere won’t be no frettin’ nowheres.”

It was a new sensation to stand looking at a full table, painfully conscious of one of the vacuums which Nature abhors, and receive orders to right about face, without partaking of the nourishment which your inner woman clamorously demanded. The doctors always fared better than we; and for a moment a desperate impulse prompted me to give them a hint, by walking off with the mutton, or confiscating the pie. But Ike’s eye was on me, and, to my shame be it spoken, I walked meekly away; went dinnerless that day, and that evening went to market, laying in a small stock of crackers, cheese and apples, that my boys might not be neglected, nor myself obliged to bolt solid and liquid dyspepsias, or starve. This plan would have succeeded admirably had not the evil star under which I was born, been in the ascendant during that month, and cast its malign influences even into my “‘umble” larder; for the rats had their dessert off my cheese, the bugs set up housekeeping in my cracker bag, and the apples like all worldly riches, took to themselves wings and flew away; whither no man could tell, though certain black imps might have thrown light upon the matter, had not the plaintiff in the case been loth to add another to the many trials of long-suffering Africa. After this failure I resigned myself to fate, and, remembering that bread was called the staff of life, leaned pretty exclusively upon it; but it proved a broken reed, and I came to the ground after a few weeks of prison fare, varied by an occasional potato or surreptitious sip of milk.”

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches (pp. 38-39). . Kindle Edition.

As I was reading this book, it dawned on me that I should be well-versed on Alcott’s writing, considering I bought a 6-volume Louisa May Alcott set, somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s, I think.  Yes, of course I still have the set, but it shames me to admit that I have never read a single one of the books in this set (pictured at the top).

Of course, I googled her bio too, to refresh my memory and see what else I didn’t know about her life and work.  Like many writers and intellectuals of her time, Louisa May Alcott became an ardent abolitionist and early feminist.  Considering necessity compelled Alcott and her sisters to find employment to help the family survive, due to their father’s financial failures, she came by her convictions about fairness in education and work opportunities from a very tough school of hard knocks.  She approached her writing as a means to put food on the table.  Her other jobs included teaching, domestic work, and working as a seamstress.  Her sisters also had to work to help supplement the family income.

Alcott’s rung on the economic ladder sounds very similar to Harriet Beecher Stowe, another of those 19th century female social justice warriors, who seem cut from a more serious mold than so many of our modern version hysterical activists fixated on ridiculous pink pussy hats, online hyperventilating,  and taking to the streets to “raise awareness”  Slavery and women not even able to vote or have much legal footing in any aspect of their lives, including financial matters, education and career opportunities, ring much clearer  as causes for justice than most of our current muddled messages carried by far-left radicals.

Even with her “feminism” Alcott strikes me as a person, who was rebellious by nature and being one of those types myself, I can relate completely to her chagrin at being talked down to or treated like she was a helpless and hapless idiot.  However, here again Alcott describes herself as a pragmatist way more than a committed ideologue. He hilarious description of her fruitless quest to acquire the “free ticket”, required for transport to Washington, to report for her volunteer nursing stint reminded me of many of my own dealings with a situation where it was easier to toss the problem to a man, who cheerfully handled the situation without any fuss.

My situations weren’t difficulties acquiring a “free ticket”, but instead were always car problems that vex me, cause me a lot of anxiety and quite frankly, I don’t want to have to deal with changing tires or oil or doing diagnostics on why the engine is making that bizarre loud sound or God-forbid there’s smoke coming out from under the hood. I prefer to toss all car emergencies to the nice man at the car repair shop or the nice man who stops to take charge of changing my flat tire.  That’s just me.  Here’s Alcott’s feminism meets reality moment, after a day spent running all over the city trying to find the government man who handled doling out “free tickets” for military service transport:

“All in vain: and I mournfully turned my face toward the General’s, feeling that I should be forced to enrich the railroad company after all; when, suddenly, I beheld that admirable young man, brother-in-law Darby Coobiddy, Esq. I arrested him with a burst of news, and wants, and woes, which caused his manly countenance to lose its usual repose. “Oh, my dear boy, I’m going to Washington at five, and I can’t find the free ticket man, and there won’t be time to see Joan, and I’m so tired and cross I don’t know what to do; and will you help me, like a cherub as you are?” “Oh, yes, of course. I know a fellow who will set us right,” responded Darby, mildly excited, and darting into some kind of an office, held counsel with an invisible angel, who sent him out radiant. “All serene. I’ve got him. I’ll see you through the business, and then get Joan from the Dove Cote in time to see you off.”

I’m a woman’s rights woman, and if any man had offered help in the morning, I should have condescendingly refused it, sure that I could do everything as well, if not better, myself. My strong-mindedness had rather abated since then, and I was now quite ready to be a “timid trembler,” if necessary.

Dear me! how easily Darby did it all: he just asked one question, received an answer, tucked me under his arm, and in ten minutes I stood in the presence of Mc K., the Desired.”

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches (pp. 8-9). . Kindle Edition.

This post has run on way longer than I intended, so by all means try some of Louisa May Alcott’s writing, beyond Little Women. 

Have a nice day!

 

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