A busy, cheerful narrative that slowly winds its way through the life of the Alcotts--mainly Bronson (1799-1888), but also his wife Abby and their four daughters, including Louisa May--and then suddenly runs out of gas. Bedell carries the story as far as 1854, at which point the effort of keeping up with this lovable but formidably energetic family apparently became too much for her, so she simply quit. Bedell's fatigue is understandable. Bronson Alcott, one of the founding fathers of Transcendentalism, was a charming conversationalist but a woolly thinker and a dull writer. His restless search for Utopia and his incurable improvidence kept him poor and forever on the move: from his School of Human Culture in Philadelphia to the Temple School in Boston (Alcott was an unorthodox but immensely gifted educator) to Alcott House in Surrey, founded by some English admirers of his, to Fruitlands, an experimental community near Harvard, Mass., to Concord (thanks to Emerson's generosity) and back to Boston. A ""pilgrim of the Absolute"" if ever there was one, Alcott was blessed with a wife and children who were not just resilient enough to endure the hardships he led them into, but who had the intelligence and humor to turn the whole thing into a great adventure. Bedell records this domestic epic with something of the affectionate care Alcott devoted to observing the behavior of his infant daughters. She is especially good with the hitherto neglected figure of Abby, who emerges here as a woman of extraordinary strength and acuteness--no wonder Bronson, speaking of Abby and Louisa, called them ""two devils"" which he was ""not quite divine enough to vanquish."" In dealing with matters outside the Alcott circle, Bedell's scholarship is a bit flimsy, but as a family portrait this modest, agreeable (and unfinished) work has much to recommend it.