Many of us are familiar with the classic tale of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." It follows the story of the fictional March sisters, and while many see sister Jo as the fierce fan-favorite, the younger Amy March is often seen as the least favorite bratty sister.
Jo's character is based on Louisa while Amy is based on her real-life sister May. And it's that real-life dynamic relationship and the truth behind the real Amy that prompted author Elise Hooper to not only research the true story, but also bring Amy's story to life to give readers a glimpse into the youngest Alcott's life.
Hooper will be speaking about the story of the Alcott sisters during her talk at the Savannah Book Festival at 2:50 p.m. Feb. 17 at First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall.
"The Other Alcott" is Hooper's debut novel - a work of historical fiction - and tells the story of Amy's artistic pursuits and delves into the complicated sibling rivalry she shared with Louisa. While Hooper currently lives in Seattle, she shares a historical past with the Alcott sisters - something she says drew her to this story.
"I am actually from a town outside Concord [Mass., where the Alcotts grew up]," Hooper says. "I spent a lot of school field trips visiting Concord House - I even went to a summer camp there."
She also says she grew up with a love of reading and was always drawn to "Little Women" and the stories of the March and Alcott sisters.
"I started this project thinking I would be writing about Louisa, but then became interested in how their lives changed when 'Little Women' was published."
Hooper says it was the memory of seeing May's childhood bedroom tucked into the back of Concord House that sparked the idea behind "The Other Alcott."
"I thought back to seeing that room covered in small sketches on the walls and wondered who she really was - was she really bratty Amy through and through?
"â€¦ But what I found was this really adventurous, optimistic woman. And I discovered that when 'Little Women' came out, Louisa was praised for her writing while May's illustrations in the book were panned. But when handed a pretty embarrassing situation, she actually became more tenacious than ever and I thought that was impressive."
The book explores May's quest to discover her own identity as a woman and an artist while traveling to Boston and then abroad. Hooper takes artistic license to create a series of letters from the sisters as well as imagine some of May's possible relationships - though the famous names in the book were real artist friends of May.
Hooper admits her own background in art helped guide the story of what it would have been like to pursue a career in art.
"When you look at May's early illustrations, you can see she clearly didn't have much understanding of figure drawing or dimensionsâ€¦ But her work displayed at the 1879 Paris Salon â€¦ looks like a different artist. The skill is beautiful. She really did improve."
Hooper says she doesn't want to give away too much of the story, but if May had continued to work, she could have been in the ranks of Mary Cassatt - a famous American artist who also appears in the story.
She explains that even through her own art education, she learned little of any women artists from the late 1800s. She discovered some of these female artists for the first time during her research.
"When I took art history in the mid-'90s, it was more a story of male artists. The women we saw were the naked subjects. The art world in the late 1800s was so much harder for women and â€¦ doing my research for this book was quite an education.
"â€¦ When I was in Boston in September, I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. â€¦ They had five of Mary Cassatt's paintings displayed and none of the other women I had learned about - they were all in the archives â€¦ and these women are still not in major collections.
"Hopefully that will changeâ€¦ The recent 'Her Paris' traveling show of women impressionists is basically a 'who's who' of the women artist in my book, so that shows there is some progress."
While there is already a great deal of research out on Louisa May Alcott, Hooper's vivid descriptions in the book about Louisa's work ethic and ability to lose herself in her work for days on end seems to shine a new light on the writer.
"There is debate in the academic world about Louisa, questioning if she was perhaps bipolar," Hooper explains. "â€¦ There are periods of manic writing around the clock - for instance, she wrote 'Little Women' a chapter a day in two months, two feverish months. Then she was ill for a spell after that. I don't have the professional background to back up that theory of her depression, but there is speculation that her health was precarious, and she did have manic periods.
"She was a real workhorse. She never married, so she could devote her time to thatâ€¦ and she supported her family. She had a lot of pressure on herâ€¦ and I felt very sympathetic for her."
Though the subjects of her story are compelling, Hooper says examining the sister relationship was most intriguing.
"I don't have a sister - I do have a wonderful brother - so I didn't have the chance to have that sister relationship growing up. But I joke that my own daughters were my inspiration and part of my research â€¦ They have their highs and their lows â€¦ but really, no matter what, they always circle back to each other."
Describing sisterhood as a special bond, Hooper adds, "It's a very complex relationship that I enjoyed studying and writing about â€¦ Your sister is your competitionâ€¦ but also your great supporter."
Book: "The Other Alcott"
When: 2:50 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, Chippewa Square