There’s no doubting the power of stories, whether fact, fiction, or a blend.
There’s also no doubting the power of words—to heal, soothe, save, bind, bond, or destroy. All of that surfaces in Heidi Chiavaroli’s The Orchard House, a novel rooted in the home and life of Louisa May Alcott.
When words don’t come to a writer, it’s like being swallowed by the Sahara desert. Lost and swirling in dust and sand before being found. Parched and wrung dry.
Worse is when you won’t allow the words to come. I’ve had moments like those, when pain was so fresh and raw and devastating, I couldn’t even write about it. Because writing about it forces you to face it, to deal with it. Which would make a wet, slobbery mess of my paper and pen strokes. Or ruin my laptop.
But when you finally journal about it, the flow of words can be a balm to the soul.
Journals and stories are a way to explore the situation at hand, which I’ve done numerous times. I wrapped my wounds in words, camouflaging the hearts and souls of my people inside new characters, new names, new settings. In this way I’ve probed mysteries of family dynamics, sifted through injustice or the confusion of hypocrisy, delved into siblings rivalries, and examined generational legacies—both good and bad.
This is why killing words and stories is a writer’s worst nightmare. Giving a negative review is only one way to harm an author. The injury might be akin to the story’s disappearance into the netherworld of cyberspace without a trace and no backup. (Yes, this has happened to me.) Or when the manuscript’s single copy goes up in smoke—as in Little Women, when Amy burns Jo’s manuscripts. As a young writer, reading that scene shook me to the core.
In The Orchard House, Heidi Chiavaroli explores the power of words and stories. In this split-time novel, the past comes to bear on the present through the impact of well-loved author Louisa May Alcott over a century later.
Like multitudes of readers, I’ve been fascinated by Little Women and its author for decades. That fascination led me to read a biography, read March (a 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner by Geraldine Brooks), read Little Women to my daughters, and watch several film adaptations.
I would have visited the Orchard House, too, the one time my family was in Concord. But with our limited time, I was outvoted by family members who chose to linger at Revolutionary War sites and contemplate “the shot heard around the world” in Lexington Concord.
Incidentally, March is a retelling of Little Women from the father’s point of view, while serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. A powerful and complex novel, this historical fiction is partially based on Bronson Alcott’s journals and letters.
But today, come with me to the source—a visit to the original Orchard House and the life of Louisa May Alcott.
Back Cover Blurb
Award-winning author Heidi Chiavaroli transports readers across time and place in this time-slip novel that will appeal to fans of Little Women.
Two women, one living in present day Massachusetts and another in Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House soon after the Civil War, overcome their own personal demons and search for a place to belong.
Abandoned by her own family, Taylor is determined not to mess up her chance at joining the home of her best friend, Victoria Bennett. But despite attending summer camp at Louisa May Alcott’s historic Orchard House with Victoria and sharing dreams of becoming famous authors, Taylor struggles to fit in. As she enters college and begins dating, it feels like Taylor is finally finding her place and some stability . . . until Victoria’s betrayal changes everything.
While Louisa May Alcott is off traveling the world, Johanna Suhre accepts a job tending Louisa’s aging parents and their home in Concord. Soon after arriving at Orchard House, Johanna meets Nathan Bancroft and, ignoring Louisa’s words of caution, falls in love and accepts Nathan’s proposal. But before long, Johanna experiences her husband’s dark side, and she can’t hide the bruises that appear.
After receiving news of Lorraine Bennett’s cancer diagnosis, Taylor knows she must return home to see her adoptive mother again. Now a successful author, Taylor is determined to spend little time in Concord. Yet she becomes drawn into the story of a woman who lived there centuries before. And through her story, Taylor may just find forgiveness and a place to belong.
Partially based on lesser known aspects of Louisa May Alcott’s life, The Orchard House is a powerful tribute to the author’s influence during her lifetime and extending beyond the next century. Her friendship with Johanna Suhre is mirrored by the modern day friendship of Taylor and Victoria who find inspiration in Louisa’s writings and her home— Orchard House—the birthplace of Little Women.
“There is no easy road to successful authorship;
it has to be earned by long and patient labor, many disappointments,
uncertainties, and trials.” — LMA, Chapter 5
Well-researched, this split-time fiction weaves two storylines together, in the 1860s and early 2000s. The power of words to either heal or destroy is paramount in both. The role of poetry and stories encircle each. The protagonists are real and relatable.
The Bennetts, parents of Taylor’s best friend Victoria, adopt Taylor in middle school. It proves to be a tough dynamic. Though fully accepted and loved in her adoptive home, Taylor still struggles with belonging.
I tried to picture myself living with one of my close friends as a pre-teen and teenager. Though it might seem idyllic at first, over time, competition would no doubt breed jealousy. Taylor had difficulty receiving unconditional love. Even more so after discovering Victoria’s true feelings.
“One must have both the dark and the light side to paint life truly.” —LMA
Orchard House is central to the story. As kids living in Concord, Massachusetts, Taylor and Victoria bond over Little Women, its author, and Orchard House where they attend annual summer writing camps. Later, as an adult, Victoria works there as a tour guide.
During college, Victoria’s unexpected betrayal sends Taylor spinning into an act of vengeance with longterm effects, then driving as far west as possible. She cuts off all communication with her family.
Not till eighteen years later in her late thirties, after her mom’s cancer diagnosis, is Taylor compelled to return home. Back at Orchard House, she and Victoria inadvertently discover poetry written by Johanna Suhre. They’re determined to learn more about Johanna’s connection to Louisa.
Unknown to them until later, Johanna was a sister to John Suhre, a wounded soldier Louisa nursed in Washington D.C. during the Civil War. His death was the catalyst for Louisa to begin a correspondence with Johanna. Eventually, Louisa invited her to Orchard House to care for Mr. and Mrs. Alcott while she took a year-long job in Europe.
“I like to help women help themselves, as that is, in my opinion,
the best way to settle the Woman question.”
–LMA, Chapter 13
The contemporary storyline starts in 1995, jumps to 1997, then fast forwards to 2001 and 2019—a bit jarring at first to not have a grasp of the years in between. The 1860s thread didn’t start for a while. Initially, the connection between those scenes and the contemporary ones weren’t clear. But soon they flawlessly streamlined together, making perfect sense.
During the 1860s at Orchard House, Johanna meets charming Nathan Bancroft, certain to become the love of her life and her happy ending. But Louisa warns her about him. Alcohol turns him mean.
Worse, however, is not being seen when Johanna longs to share the poetry of her soul.
“A time will come when you will find that in gaining a brief joy
you have lost your peace forever.”
— A Long Fatal Love Chase, LMA
If you’re a Little Women and/or a Louisa May Alcott fan, you’ll appreciate the way Heidi ties aspects of Louisa’s personality and principles into both timelines. As a single, strong, freethinking woman, Louisa was ahead of her time, exemplified by the quotes in each chapter heading.
“. . . I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” — LMA, Chapter 10
Louisa’s view on men and marriage guides her counsel to Johanna. I appreciated her wisdom, not given to conventions. The marital issues reflect complicated relationship dynamics, with no easy answers, and the importance of wisely responding to physical and emotional abuse. Louisa’s insights still applied 150 later as Taylor tries to support Victoria. This would be a great book club pick.
For the best books about Louisa May Alcott and her life, as recommended by Heidi, go here.
Join me for some Q & A with author Heidi Chiavaroli.
Questions about The Orchard House
What initially drew you to learning more about Louisa May Alcott?
Heidi: I’ve always been fascinated by interesting historical women who lived where I lived, and grew up where I did (Massachusetts). I remember my grandmother taking me, my mom, and my sister to Louisa’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa had written and set Little Women. I remember standing at Louisa’s desk and thinking how incredibly amazing it was that she had written such a masterpiece right here.
That was the moment history really came alive for me. I couldn’t help but be drawn by it. Years later, when I was mulling over ideas for my next book, it’s not surprising that Louisa came to mind.
What fascinates you the most about her life?
Heidi: Louisa was truly outside of her time. She was bold where it counted, so very insightful, and cared about the deep struggles of humanity. I can relate to her desire to do something great, to stand up for what she believes in, but to also struggle with her flaws.
I admired how she persevered in her writing to create the masterpiece we know today as Little Women. I was also fascinated by the lesser-known fact that she went off to be a nurse during the Civil War and nearly died of typhoid in the process.
Knowing that you wanted a tie to Louisa May Alcott’s life, how did you decide on your contemporary characters and their situations?
Heidi: I wanted a big part of The Orchard House to be about women’s friendships and sisterhood. This was such an integral part of Little Women that I didn’t feel I could leave it behind. And yet I wanted the freedom of fictionalizing my historical heroine, Johanna. I could give free rein to her character and yet allow her to be molded and shaped by her true-to-life friend, Louisa.
I thought it would be interesting to parallel their relationship in a modern-day friendship. I wanted to explore the intricacies and blessings of such a friendship, as well as some of the tangles it potentially creates.
Later, when both Victoria (one of my main contemporary characters) and Johanna experience abuse, I wanted to take Louisa’s bold stance on domestic violence and bring it around to the present. It was interesting to include Louisa’s heart for the downtrodden through both the past and the present stories.
Did the plot stick to a predetermined plan or did it change and grow as you wrote?
Heidi: My stories always start with a premise along with a somewhat hazy middle and ending. My characters are a bit rebellious and don’t like to stick to a plan, no matter how much I try to make them! These characters were no exception. ☺
What kind of research prepared you for writing this book?
Heidi: Along with visiting Concord and Orchard House, I tried to steep myself in Louisa’s work. I reread Little Women along with some of her other works including Moods and A Long Fatal Love Chase. I read biographies on Louisa and read her published letters.
Most fascinating of all (and a bit of a heavy read) were her published journal entries, which more clearly revealed the ways Louisa truly was like Jo March, but also how, in many ways, she was not just the endearing character we think of when reading Little Women. She was certainly a woman of depth, and I tried to convey that as I set out to write The Orchard House.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy fiction that harkens back to historical literature and authors the way The Orchard House reflects Louisa May Alcott’s world, you might enjoy my story, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this split-time novel spotlights The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. It alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. I’m currently gathering a launch team. Learn more and watch the book trailer here.
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Heidi Chiavaroli Bio
Heidi writes women’s fiction, combining her love of history and literature to write both split time stories and contemporary fiction. Her debut novel, Freedom’s Ring, was a Carol Award winner and a Christy Award finalist, a Romantic Times Top Pick and a Booklist Top Ten Romance Debut. Heidi loves exploring places that whisper of historical secrets, especially with her family. She loves running, hiking, baking, and dates with her husband. Her latest dual timeline novel, The Orchard House, is inspired by the lesser-known events in Louisa May Alcott’s life. Heidi makes her home in Massachusetts with her husband and two sons. Learn more on her website.
Join me next time for a visit with author Liz Johnson.
Meanwhile, have you read The Orchard House? Have you been to the Orchard House in Concord or other authors’ homes? Answer in the comments below.