Two things led me to finally check Fruitlands by Gloria Whelan out of the library and actually read it: first, as a Gloria Whelan fan, I had looked at it numerous times and even possibly checked it out before but lacked the impulse to actually read it until second, I read Invincible Louisa, the juvenile biography about Louisa May Alcott, which sent me on a quest to learn more about Alcott. Of course, it might be argued that one shouldn’t expect to really learn things from novels (which is what Fruitlands is), but I know that Whelan backs up her fictional worlds with copious research. This is to say that I trust her interpretation of the year or so in the life of the Alcott family during which they made an attempt at communal living as much as I trust, say, Cornelia Meigs’ interpretation of Alcott’s life set forth in the aforementioned juvenile biography from the 1930s. One of the differences between the two, at least structurally, is that Whelan’s work is composed of a series of fictional journal entries, which go back and forth between Louisa’s “public” journal which her parents would be privy to and her private journal where she divulges her true feelings. The subtitle of the novel is Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect, which might perhaps be considered sarcasm considering the fact that Bronson Alcott’s attempt at this utopian community failed, if not philosophically, at least practically. Still, what we readers get is the tension between the ideal and the practical or real as the ten year old Louisa saw it. What this feels like most often to me is an indictment of Bronson Alcott, who, at least according to Whelan’s interpretation of him, sacrificed his family’s well being for the sake of his philosophy. This is the other big difference between the 1930s fictionalized (?) biography and this novel: Cornelia Meigs’ work definitely cast Bronson Alcott in a positive light, while Whelan’s doesn’t. In fact, while reading Invincible Louisa, I most often felt like Abba Alcott (Louisa’s mother) came off looking the worse of the two, though my gut feeling was to defend her. Fruitlands depicts Abba Alcott as angst-filled over the situation, while Meigs’ work depicts her mostly as mostly tired or even ill-humored. Perhaps this is more indicative of the time in which the books were written than anything else.
Fruitlands is a very well written and compelling story which would be accessible to any middle grade reader, though the subject matter might be a little odd. Much is made of the differences of opinions among the denizens of Fruitlands, for they each work out their philosophies in different ways. For example, one man refuses to wear clothing, while another refuses to kill anything, even the insect pests that devour their crops (which the inhabitants of Fruitlands are literally depending upon for their sustenance). It seems to me that the thoughts and feelings that Whelan gives Louisa are reasonable ones for a child living as a part of this extraordinary “experiment.” (HarperCollins, 2002)
Other books by Whelan reviewed here at Hope Is the Word: