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Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance

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Small book. Big message.

Publisher: Penned In The Margins
Pages: 72
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-05852-2
First Published: 1st October 2018
Date Reviewed: 11th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

The Perseverance is a magnificent collection of poetry. Full of variation in method, the themes of racial identity and identity as a person who is deaf, together with the social perceptions of both, the book offers a wealth of examples of difference between stereotype and reality, reworkings and reclamations of misinterpretations and ignorance, in a deceptively small number of pages.

Whilst Antrobus’ poems share just a few themes between them, you’d be wrong to think that subjects are similar. Umbrella-wise, they are, but to see the poems as coming under a couple of umbrellas would be to miss the point. The ideas of discrimination and prejudice don’t by themselves, as we know, infer how much is actually going on behind the scenes, as Antrobus’ collection brilliantly shows.

This is a collection about the poet himself – his family, his experiences and thoughts – but they will speak to many. His small studies of people’s perceptions of his mixed-race self and heritage and his explanations of how it feels to be treated as lesser then because he can’t hear, which will resonate with those who’ve suffered similar experiences as well as those with other disabilities and conditions, are profound. They are needed.

The first poem, called Echo and split into a few verses, each introduced by an illustration in BSL, combines and compares Catholicism with moments in Antrobus’ experience. It looks at how a lack of sound is so often equated to otherness, before moving onto other questions and situations in Antrobus’ childhood, the days before his parents realised he couldn’t hear them.

In Jamaican British, the poet looks at the two branches of his racial heritage and the way difference is perceived, this at a time when he’s seeking to find his identity:

They think I say I’m black when I say Jamaican British
but the English boys at school made me choose: Jamaican, British?

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.
Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British. (p. 25)

Then there is Dear Hearing World, an absolutely stunning piece of writing that looks at the social treatment of deafness in general. It may prove very validating. From page 37:

I call you out for refusing to acknowledge
sign language in classrooms, for assessing
deaf students on what they can’t say
instead of what they can, […]

Miami Airport, a poem full of white space that tells you everything else the words themselves do not, is based around a particularly alarming case of ‘you don’t look deaf’ whilst the redaction and response to Ted Hughes’ poem about a school for deaf children is profound as much for the redaction (it deletes Hughes’ poem in its entirety) as it is for Antrobus’ response where the present-day poet looks at Hughes’ lack of ability to see the students, both literally and metaphorically, taking away from Hughes both a human sense and his wholly inaccurate interpretation. (You don’t have to have read Hughes’ poem to understand Antrobus’ response, though you may wish to.)

There are no half measures in this collection, and just as important as the words and language are the line breaks and that use of white space, the emptiness often saying just as much as the words.

The Perseverance is just incredible. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.

 
Samantha Sotto – A Dream Of Trees

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“A dream is not reality, but who’s to say which is which?” – Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking-Glass (quoted by Sotto).

Publisher: (self published)
Pages: 326
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-081-78019-7
First Published: 30th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 4th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

Aiden sits down in his hotel room’s chair and waits to die. Instead, the door opens and a Japanese woman walks in. She tells him she’s here to take him to his ‘rooms’, places he must visit before his soul can pass on. It’s unbelieveable, but he starts to trust her as she tells him to look over to the chair where his double sits; he has left his body. Meanwhile, the lady, Shiori, knows how incredible it all seems – she’s not sure why she is in the position she is and longs for the short periods of time she gets to spend in a greenhouse; rather that than these visits to those who are dying. But for now it is Aiden she has come to see and she must get him through however many doors will exist for him to pass through.

A Dream Of Trees is an exceptional book about what could happen between life and death and how we treat each other when times are hard. Somewhere between fantasy and magical realism, the novel offers an experience you will not easily forget.

This book is stunning. In a move away from time traveling and road trips, for her third novel Sotto has turned to a subject that is very moving and ever relate-able, with threads particularly relevant to our present day, her choices for the various characters and scenes up-to-the-minute. The writing is a delight, word choice and general detailing very effective. There are a number of proof-reading errors but – and this is, to me, all credit to the strength of the book – they don’t matter. Sotto’s story and her message are strong enough that it withstands them.

The novel transcends beliefs in regards to religion and faith. Concerned with the in-between and unfinished business, questions and thoughts aligned with religious ideas feature but are part of the wider spiritual whole, for example at least one person questions whether Shiori is an angel. There is a look at the afterlife in the sense of people waiting for others.

The characterisation is very good but regardless this is more of a theme-led book. The characters’ purpose is to look at questions we have and troubles that occur in our world. Situations such as a person who has suffered from poor treatment from peers, the ripple of impact years later, and the realisation of the perpetrator that what went on affected their victim far more than they thought. So in exploring the life/death moment, the novel revolves around the idea of unfinished business – having or not having it and how that might affect a soul going forward. It covers accidents, murder, and natural causes of death. It covers acceptance, disbelief, and simple incomprehension.

And around it all is the mystery of Shiori, of who she is and why she has such a job of leading souls. The narrative is open to predictions – you’ll likely have your own idea of what or who she is but there are many possibilities and no matter whether or not you were on the right track does not make a difference to your experience; when it comes to the answer it’s a surprise, a powerful one. At the same time there is the diary of days passed without an understanding of what’s going on that adds to the mystery whilst, ironically, adding to your own understanding. Sotto puts our relationships with each other as paramount, showing how important love and forgiveness are.

A Dream Of Trees is… well, it’s hard to say exactly how brilliant this book is; it is a book for everyone. I would pick your moment carefully – this may not (or may in fact be) the right time if you’re in a bad place – but I would most certainly recommend it. It’s an important subject and set of considerations.

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Nick Alexander – You Then, Me Now

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Time to jettison the pain.

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (Amazon Publishing)
Pages: 293
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-503-95862-3
First Published: 1st May 2019
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2019
Rating: 4/5

Becky is far beyond the age to know the details about her father but her mother, Laura, has given little information, making excuses all the time. Now a young adult, Becky has had enough; it’s time Laura told her the truth and perhaps a holiday in a place her mother seems to be attached to will help. Past hurts have stopped Laura telling her daughter everything – some things are just too hard to go back to. She’s always struggled with her memories and doesn’t know how to get around them.

You Then, Me Now is a fantastically executed novel that looks at the effects of various types of abuse on personal development. Alexander has created a story that combines the tale of an awful past with other elements that are very pleasant to read. It does this by using a dual narrative that sides more towards Laura’s story (part of Becky’s ‘allocated’ time is spent trying to work out the issues with her mother) but is far from overwhelmed by it.

Laura’s life has never been easy; it started with her mother, whose parenting caused a particularly negative experience. Laura’s mother was beyond strict, with Laura always worried about going so far as a centimetre away from the rules – even as an adult – for the understandable fear that her mother would be on her like a ton of bricks. The effects of all this naturally leads Laura to be very passive in the face of anything she’s not sure about, and she either misses clues entirely or is unable to trust her gut when it comes to assessing the goodness of strangers. This in turn leads her to say ‘yes’ to the sudden offer of a holiday by a man she’s just met who is constantly gaslighting her. So Laura is weak; you may find her frustrating at the start; it’s a symptom of her lack of healing. From start to finish, this part of the story is handled with a lot of care.

Alexander gives his reader something more lighthearted and positive to read about in Becky’s chapters. Becky is looking at her future, using the holiday both as time with her mother and as a getaway for herself. Where Laura’s chapters contain a romance, so too do Becky’s, but the relative relaxed nature of Becky’s romance allows you to relax yourself into the book. The location of the holiday and thus most of the novel, as Laura and Becky leave home soon into the book and Laura’s flashbacks are mostly of events at same location, is the Greek tourist island of Santorini. Alexander’s writing of it is brilliant; you won’t need photos – the descriptions are perfect and very atmospheric. In fact the only thing not so much in its favour is the slightly repetitive use of dinners in restaurants – dinner is expected, but a run down of the meals each time isn’t so much. That said, it does provide more information on Santorini.

Once the book reaches the end of the answers, it turns towards the resolution; this is where the book’s sole problem comes into play. The resolution isn’t entirely unrealistic but it falls in the realms of one-in-a-million and so it’s convenient that it happens. Certainly it keeps the page count under control – Alexander never belabours at any point – but it would’ve been better to have had a resolution that would have taken longer and thus been more credible. This said, as much as it casts a shadow it only casts it over that section – all the deft theme work and time spent on the setting is unaffected, and the ending itself is good.

You Then, Me Now encompasses far more than its name and cover might suggest, and almost in its entirety it achieves its aims with aplomb.

 
Michelle Obama – Becoming

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The journey to the White House.

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Pages: 421
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-33414-0
First Published: 13th November 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th July 2019
Rating: 4/5

Michelle Obama, previous First Lady of the United States, was born on the South Side of Chicago to working class parents. Her family strove to ensure she and her brother had all they needed to ‘launch’ successfully. Michelle went on to study law at the prestigious Princeton University, and then started work at a law firm. Her path in life was altered by the arrival of a socially-conscious and driven, yet very casual, intern.

In Becoming, the lengthy and detailed autobiography, Obama (from now on referred by her first name) tells us her story from birth to the end of Barack’s presidency. A fairly honest account (understandably limited), the book provides a lot of information about the workings of the presidential office, and a well-written and considered critique of American society, mostly in the context of childhood and education.

Becoming is split into three parts – Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More, with the rough alignment of life stages you would expect. Several pages of photographs are slotted into the middle and, at least in the hardback edition, more photos line the inside of the front and back.

The first section has a fair amount going for it in terms of preference due to the relative lack of politics involved in a person telling the story of their childhood, and the fact that Michelle is able to spend more time on the subjects she most wants to discuss in the way she wants to discuss them. It is where Michelle has the time to talk about the make-up and complexity of American society, Chicago in particular, her experience as a black girl and later teenager in a working class area of a big city, together with the more general experience as a person in that time (1960s) informing the text; Michelle shares vast insights about issues that remain to this day, issues that have naturally had a knock-on effect on the decisions she made in terms of the creation of First Lady sociopolitical campaigns. (First Lady is not considered a job but does come with sociopolitical requirements.)

During the first section, Michelle talks about the way her neighbourhood, and by extension her school, was composed of a racially diverse group of people, and how the mass migration of the white population away from the area during her elementary (primary) school years had a huge effect on the lives of those remaining. The subject is one of the forerunners of Michelle’s book-long exploration of the issues children from less advantaged backgrounds have to deal with in the education sector. It’s an excellent study wherein the author situates her thoughts on the side of the kids:

If you’d had a head start at home, you were rewarded for it at school, deemed “bright” or “gifted,” which in turn only compounded your confidence. The advantages aggregated quickly (p.18).

Now that I’m an adult, I realize that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn. Their anger over it can manifest itself as unruliness. It’s hardly their fault. They aren’t “bad kids.” They’re just trying to survive bad circumstances (p.22).

Michelle’s look at life in the suburbs of Chicago includes her father, who worked in the boiler rooms at a factory, her mother, who kept the home and also found work in a bank, her grandfather who for reasons related to his social position distrusted the medical profession, and her great aunt whose house the family lived in and who taught Michelle to play the piano. There are a couple of mentions of Michelle’s great-great-grandfather, necessarily less detailed. He was a slave.

When it comes to Barack, who enters in the second section, there is a surprising amount of honesty. Michelle details his personality, particularly in the social and domestic sphere where his drive for a better local and then national community is often on the same page as his lack of attention regarding household duties. So honest in the household area of life it is, in fact, that it goes almost too far to where it feels as though Michelle’s words are there to persuade you into thinking the couple were (and are) not well suited enough, which surely was not the intention. Thankfully, it comes to an end before the end of the section and the narrative as a whole remains relatively unaffected. Perhaps it needed to be better written. Certainly with three pairs of eyes continually on the manuscript (Michelle acknowledges the contributions of another writer and her speech writer) it would have helped the book in general if various repetitions had been omitted.

The final section, where the Obamas look at the possibility of the White House, moves back towards the success of the first half. It is here where all the thoughts about children’s education and lifestyles come full circle as Michelle moves into a position that allows her much more freedom in regards to doing what she wanted in her previous roles (the second section had discussed her early work for lawyers and charitable organisations).

Michelle was coming into the idea of growing your own food and teaching children just as a number of researchers were starting to promote the idea. Robin Shulman, whose book, Eat The City, a look at the quiet revolution in New York high-density housing areas where residents used any patches of unused land to grow vegetables, cited Michelle’s then-new campaigns in the afterword to her book. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published a little after the garden was started, also had favourable words to say (though they were in an article rather than his book).

The main thread of the final section however, is of course that of Barack’s presidency. The information included will for many people be a culture shock, as the family are unable to open any windows, go outside or even simply go to another part of the building without 30 minutes debate from security; a date night involves shutting down access to all the streets on the journey and checking anyone who is unfortunate enough to have booked their table for a time after the Obamas got there. In many ways, non-American readers will gain a lot more from this section than Americans.

Michelle’s stories include those that show why some people wouldn’t have been happy with Barack leading their country – the book continues in its honesty and this relative objectivity is a good thing. She is honest and harsh in her thoughts of the man who took over, but that’s to be expected; it also explains her choices at the inauguration where her lack of smiles was noted.

A big shining light of the final section is the family as a whole; with the children now old enough to understand the basics, and Michelle’s mother living in the White House, the parts that focus on the individual members are, for all their briefness (for privacy’s sake), often the best parts of any one chapter. Michelle’s mother remained relatively free to come and go and the two girls’ conduct and answers to various questions they receive show a level of maturity that’s compelling.

As much as Becoming is lengthy, it’s also a pity when it comes to an end; you will find yourself investing a lot of different mental resources in this book. It could definitely have done with more editing. It could also have done with more of what’s only touched on, but given the people involved, this is one of those few occasions where that can’t be called an active drawback. Becoming isn’t perfect but the subjects it looks at in detail, namely those more unique to Michelle than to Barack and the rest of his team, are fascinating. The social history, the social present, and Michelle’s chosen angle for her commentaries, are compelling. There is plenty here to learn and be inspired by and more than a few stories you’re going to want to jot down and remember.

I received this book for review.

 
Louisa May Alcott – Good Wives

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Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part Two. Part One received its own post last week.

‘Cos I can’t help falling in love with you.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1869
Date Reviewed: 11th July 2019
Rating: 5/5

We open with a marriage: having fallen in love with Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, Meg is getting married. It will be an interesting time for the family as all four daughters grow older and find their place in the world. Meg will want to make a good home for herself and John, Jo will want to write and travel, Amy will want to improve her art and find riches, and Beth just wants to feel like herself again. Meanwhile, Laurie will go to college as Jo wants him to, hoping to find success in doing what she wishes.

Good Wives takes us back to the March family and their friends, beginning a few years after the curtain fell in Part One. With a bit more plot and time away from home, whilst it has many aspects that will not please readers of the first Part, it succeeds in being incredibly thoughtful and an extremely good work in terms of both its general literary value and its value as a contextual look into Alcott’s life and dreams.

The novel is both a regular continuation of a story, and Alcott’s rebuke of the idea of marriage and the resulting lack of agency women of the period experienced. The rebuke involves passages that suggest a not-so-veiled personal affront she felt from readers about her life; whilst Alcott may not have made note of such in her journals, certainly the content of the novel’s text speaks directly her audience.

To speak of the idea of marriage first, none of the marriages in this book are particularly convincing. Whilst Meg’s marriage gets more time in terms of a show of the domestic space and post-honeymoon period, and the character John Brooke, Meg’s husband, was a part of Part One and thus was somewhat developed prior to the union, both Jo and Amy’s marriages are decidedly lacklustre. Debates abound regarding the suitability of both these marriages, which revolves around the fact that Alcott matches the wrong man to one of the women, with the woman he should have married later marrying a person who rightly or wrongly is consigned to be largely forgotten by readers. Whilst Amy’s marriage has enough of a backstory and prior development of the characters for the readers to understand what might happen later on, Alcott’s effective shoe-horning of Mr Bhaer into the story makes an already bad thread worse.

Alcott’s effective overturning of what would be the most natural and expected conclusion to the story is surely a further effect – following the inclusion of marriage in itself – of Alcott’s not wanting to go along with the social mores and expectations of the time and culture she lived in.

We see this first, perhaps, during the wedding ceremony for Meg and John, wherein Meg gives the first kiss to her mother, an inappropriate action if ever there was one, a fact which Alcott makes reference to in her narration. From there, whether we consider the kiss part of the problems or not, Alcott devises communication problems that led to resentment, wherein Meg is overwhelmed and bored of being in the home whilst John enjoys himself but doesn’t know what to do to change it. Alcott knows exactly what they should do; she has Meg go to her mother for advice. It’s a very basic issue that one would expect the couple to be able to work out themselves, but in contriving the scene Alcott makes Meg have to talk to Marmee about it instead.

Is there something in this defaulting to Marmee over relationship issues when it comes to Alcott’s dislike of marriage? Marmee’s advice had been sought before, but its inclusion in the daughters’ romantic relationships brings in a different aspect. In 2014, Sarah Rivas, then an MA student, proposed the concept of the ‘Cult of Marmee’, in which the four March daughters’ lives revolve around what Marmee thinks. This explanation has a lot going for it; the enmeshment and inability to do much if anything independent of Marmee’s views and wishes pervades both Parts of the book. The subject is too vast to be included further in this post, but Rivas’ point stands together with what we can see of Alcott’s use of marriage in Good Wives, this usage of something her readers had reportedly asked for in a sequel to their new favourite book, but twisted into a version that would help Alcott as she struggled with everything that marriage in her era meant for women’s agency.

Alcott does not mince her words. When speaking of the effects of marriage, she is always brazen, honest, and takes no prisoners. The following quotation is included during a scene which looks at Meg’s life after having given birth:

In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married, when ‘Vive la Liberte!’ becomes their motto. In America, as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most of them might exclaim, as did a very pretty woman the other day, “I’m as handsome as ever, but no one takes any notice of me because I’m married”.

Clearly Alcott saw the alternative used in France – where a woman could be married yet not burdened by domesticity – and liked it.

Of the second aspect of Alcott’s rebuke, the personal affront she saw, there is much to go on, all of it related to scenes revolving around Jo. Jo is largely based on Alcott herself, and as Alcott was a writer who did not marry, so too was Jo supposed to write and remain single. We see the beginnings of it all here:

Now, if she [Jo] had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn’t a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested.

Themes beyond those discussed involve the American slave trade and slavery, an important topic that may nevertheless become forgotten for its seeming lack of inclusion; in Good Wives, Alcott’s support of abolition isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as her thoughts of female agency, but there is some diversity in terms of equality:

Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind regardless of rank, age, or color.

The Alcott family in general did not support slavery and actively sought to help black people in difficult situations. We know from Ednah Cheney’s edited collection of Louisa’s journal and letters, published in 1889, that Louisa’s mother hid a fugitive slave in the family’s oven (p. 137).

Alcott’s decision to have Jo become a teacher of sorts is the way in which the author includes her own beliefs. Jo takes a ‘quadroon’ boy (a historic term for a person who is one-quarter black, often fathered by a plantation owner) into her school and it’s noted by Alcott that no one else would likely have taken the boy in. In light of this passage in the book, Sands-O’Connor (2015) says that Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson, had welcomed an African-American child into his school, and, due to this decision, the other pupils left and the school failed. We see, then, the way that the seemingly simple couple of sentences by Alcott about Jo’s acceptance of a child, and the fact that Jo’s school continues to be successful, is a direct response to a real life experience and likely an effort to make things right in the only way the author could.

Alcott was a nurse during the Civil War and wrote about her experiences in a book she called Hospital Sketches. According to Sands-O’Connor, she’d been viewed poorly by a fellow nurse for cuddling an African American baby; she later revised her nursing account to make it more nationally acceptable. The publisher of that book was the one who asked Alcott to write a children’s book and they said at the time that Alcott was not to include anything that would increase racial tensions (ibid.).

This accounts for why the racial equality in Good Wives remains a glimmer. Sands-O’Connor sums it up well: Alcott had learned from past experience what it meant to be a public supporter of abolition, and she needed the independence the money from her book would bring in (ibid.). This also accounts for why, in the first Part, we have a father going off to serve as a chaplain in the Civil War without any discussion of the war itself, only his physical wounds.

Good Wives continues the topic of the publishing industry and literary trends that was started in Part One; now that Jo is older and more like the adult Alcott, the information is detailed and incredibly telling.

“But Mr. Allen says, ‘Leave out the explanations, make it brief and dramatic, and let the characters tell the story,'” interrupted Jo, turning to the publisher’s note.

The above matches with what we know about Alcott’s writing; it fits in with what the two Parts do, except that Alcott narrates more than she lets the characters themselves tell the story. There are other passages like this, including one wherein Jo lets her family critic her work.

As Jo continues with her writing, so does Alcott continue on with her book-about-books. This Part contains many more references than the first; Charles Dickens is a favourite and Alcott includes myriad plays and poems, an influence, perhaps, of her adventures abroad.

The use of travel in this book expands on that in Part One in the way that it increases in its interest and scope. Like in the first book, Alcott ascribes some of her own journeys to some one else, the extent of her own travels being enough to make content for a number of characters’ storylines. We travel to Europe, to New York, and see glimpses of other places. The travels are undoubtedly a highlight of the book in terms of pure enjoyment, the cultural and other historical detailing vibrant and informative, the storytelling open and abundant.

It is unfortunate for Alcott that whilst Good Wives may have done well in her time, the use of domesticity aligning with what her contemporaries wanted, it is impossible to say it is quite as loved now, no matter how much it is still read. The choices she made for her characters are often understandably questioned; without all the historical context and even with it, it’s hard to finish the book feeling completely satisfied with where she takes her characters. It’s difficult not to wonder how the story might have flowed had Alcott been in a more liberal society; undoubtedly she would appreciate the debates we have today. The book is surely one of the best examples of the affects of society on an author’s output for all the reasons mentioned above and more. But it’s also just a very good book, enjoyable for what it says and does and an incredible primary source for the author herself. It may not satisfy the want for a solid story but it well satisfies everything else – it is arguably best read for both enjoyment and in its literary context concurrently.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Rivas, Sarah (2014) Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood – The Cult of Marmee and Little Women, Scientia et Humanitas, Vol 4, pp. 53-64
Sands-O’Connor, Karen (2015) Her Contraband: Diversity and Louisa May Alcott, The Race To Read, accessed 9th July 2019.

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