In the Bookcase


[Guest post!] Louisa May Alcott as muse, guide and grief counselor

I want to thank Tarissa for allowing me to guest post on her wonderful blog. My name is Susan Bailey and I blog at Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. I have always enjoyed her Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenges and I know my readers have too.

River of Grace by Susan BaileyMy new book
Recently Tarissa graciously read and reviewed here my first book, River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times, a spiritual memoir about a long season of loss and grief followed by the grace of a renewed life expressed through a blossoming of creativity. In the book I include a series of “flow lessons”—practical applications of the themes of the book meant to impart the spiritual truths for you, the reader.

Never meant to be a writer
I am fifty-nine years old and never thought I would become a published author. Like many kids I created my own books (sequels to Black Beauty, stories about my trolls and ghost stories told around the camp fire at Girl Scout camp). It was just a little pipe dream forgotten the moment I discovered the guitar at age fifteen.

Meeting Louisa in the crabapple tree
Meeting Louisa
But in my childhood I also came to know Louisa May Alcott whom I never forgot; she became my lifelong friend and muse. We were introduced not through Little Women but rather through a children’s biography, The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard. A tomboy at heart who did not have the physical ability nor the guts to actually be one, I loved how she wrote and produced plays with her sisters just like I did with the neighbors. I mimicked her writing in apple trees by climbing into our little crabapple tree, pencil and pad in hand. Finally I had a friend with a temper as fierce as mine. I had trouble fitting in and she did too.

Louisa May Alcott: A Modern BiographyThe adult version
Later in my twenties when I first laid eyes on Martha Saxton’s controversial biography Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography (and the lurid cover), I found a friend with an artists’ temperament similar to mine; she too lost herself in a vortex of creativity and suffered depressive episodes.

A secret ritual
Never much of a reader, still I fell into a curious ritual of reading a biography on Louisa (never her own writing) in the autumn months and then going on a pilgrimage to Orchard House in Concord to complete that ritual. I discovered her artist sister May’s drawings and paintings on the walls and stood for long moments in front of Lizzie’s melodeon, wondering about this shadow sister. It was as if this family was still alive.

My love of Louisa was my little lifelong secret until five years ago and that’s when everything started to change. My mother had just passed away in the spring of 2010 after a long illness and I felt numb and empty. In River of Grace I write,

“It began with a thoughtful gift from my husband. Rich had bought a couple of books for me during the last year of my mother's illness, both related to Louisa May Alcott [The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly Connor O’Nees and Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen]. Aware of my longstanding interest in Louisa, he thought that reading might ease the pain. I hadn't had the heart to read them while my mother was sick, but after she died I was ready for something new.” (River of Grace, Chapter 4)

Setting things in motion
The former book set the stage for the latter which turned out to be a game-changer. Reisen and Nancy Porter’s documentary of the same title was showing on PBS and I was hooked. Reisen was local to me in Massachusetts and so I reached out to her, first by email and then by phone. It was the first time that I had shared this secret passion and I couldn’t believe a complete stranger let me babble on and on about Louisa. I will never forget that kindness.

PBS Documentary

Reisen’s own passion for Louisa’s canon led me at last to Louisa’s books:

“It began not with Little Women, but with Hospital Sketches, a thinly veiled memoir of her experience as a Civil War nurse. Her moving description of the death of a virtuous soldier named John Suhre and how she had nursed him acted as a soothing balm on my grief. She described death as noble, and her belief in the afterlife was unmistakable. Where once I had felt a kinship with Louisa because of our mutually shared mood swings, deep tempers, and passions for our art; now I identified with the woman who found sacredness and hope in death just as I had. While Louisa wrote mainly to support her family, it seemed that the act of creating helped her to work through her own grief after the tragic passing of her younger sister Elizabeth whom she called her ‘conscience’ and ‘spiritual guide.’” (River of Grace, Chapter 4)

Carried by a river of grace
Louisa May Alcott is My Passion started up soon after that and my writing journey began. I was conscious of this new gift being linked with God’s grace. With no formal education or experience in writing, and a lifetime of reading to catch up on, I had many doubts. I decided to trust in God’s grace and go with it, not unlike floating downstream on a river. Sometimes the water was calm, other times turbulent but that river of grace coupled with the advice of my muse Louisa, produced a work I am most proud of because for the first time I gave it my all.

I would like to end this post with a video and a song I wrote and produced for Louisa and Lizzie called “I Will Remember You.” You can find River of Grace on Amazon; I hope you enjoy it and that it speaks to you.

Read Tarissa's 5-star review for River of Grace.


  1. Briar Lynn12/14/2015

    I think I could benefit from Susan's book. I love the little snippets she shared here.

  2. Hi Briar, thanks for your kind words regarding River of Grace.

  3. As a fan of Miss Alcott's (treasured!) writings myself, I'm intrigued by Susan Bailey's story. It sounds interesting, if Louisa May Alcott had anything to do with it by touching this author's life.

  4. Hi Rory,
    I have a feeling Louisa has touched many lives in profound ways and not just through Little Women.