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Boston's Alcott Trail: Little Women Slept Here

Seeing a favorite author's haunts is always enlightening, but it's especially so in the case of the complex, conflicted Alcott. You've got to love a writer who once referred to her own successful children's stories as "moral pap for the young." Even her mainstream stuff had an edge.

Yes, she had a sentimental streak, and she functioned within the constraints of her time, but she was no prig -- and she was nothing if not pragmatic. As the daughter of a well-meaning but idealistic philosopher who wasn't overly concerned with bringing home a paycheck, she had to be. To help support herself and her family -- her dotty father, long-suffering mother, sisters, nephews and niece -- she churned out lurid tales of passion and intrigue long before she became famous for more respectable fare. She was both dutiful daughter and rebellious schemer, respected novelist and closet pulp fiction writer.

Louisa May Alcott's final home was in Boston's elegant Beacon Hill area. (K.C. Summers -- The Washington Post)

"Little Women," published when Alcott was 36, was an immediate critical and popular success, but the best-selling author felt trapped in a role she didn't entirely relish. Soon she was dodging autograph seekers in Concord, periodically fleeing to Boston to escape her fans.

You can get a tantalizing glimpse of Alcott's roots in Concord at the rambling frame house on Lexington Road called the Wayside. (That's what author Nathaniel Hawthorne renamed it after he bought it from the Alcotts, who'd called it Hillside. Hawthorne was just one of the literary heavy hitters who hung out with the family. Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and other leading lights also were part of the gang.)

The family moved to Hillside in 1845 when Louisa was 12, staying for three years. It was here that much of the action of "Little Women" took place and where the sisters developed their unique talents -- Anna the actor, Louisa the writer (she produced her first published book, "Flower Fables," here), Elizabeth the pianist and May the artist. This is where the girls acted out the allegory "Pilgrim's Progress," climbing the 17th-century staircase and venturing out onto the pitched rooftop that represented the Celestial City.

Well, they were the children of a moralizing transcendentalist.

Just down the street is Orchard House, where the family moved in 1858. And that's where their lives are most vividly evoked today.

It's almost too much to take in. The homey little kitchen with the scrubbed wooden table. The dining room that doubled as a stage for family theatricals. A very wacky breadboard bearing an etching of Raphael, burned into the wood by a young artist with a hot poker. Amy's watercolors. Beth's piano. Jo's well-thumbed books. Even if it's your first visit to Orchard House, you feel as if you've been here before.

Of course, you have.

The chocolate-brown frame house stands surrounded by greenery, looking much like it must have when the Alcotts moved in. Louisa was 26. Elizabeth had just died of complications from scarlet fever, and the little shrine that the grieving family set up in the dining room -- her melodeon, a portrait by May, two candles -- still remains.

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