An author of over 60 YA novels brings fine narrative skill to a sympathetic portrait of one of her greatest predecessors. Much has been added to the record since the 1933 publication of Meigs's well-researched but traditional biography, the Newbery-winning Invincible Louisa. Alcott's letters and journals, several collections of the ""thrillers"" that kept the family pot boiling, and a novel whose genesis was ruefully described in Little Women have been recently published; scholarly studies point out the extent to which the author's autobiographical fiction was an unrealistic reformulation of a difficult life and of a gifted but impossible family (especially her improvident philosopher father). Johnston, bless her, succeeds in reconciling the loving family in Little Women with the facts of Alcott's rich but extraordinarily demanding life. She posits that, though Bronson Alcott was indeed a remarkably innovative educator as well as an eminent scholar, it was her mother, Abba May Alcott, who most profoundly influenced Louisa. Pioneer social worker and sometimes, of necessity, family breadwinner, she was, like Louisa, an outstandingly courageous, independent, yet nurturing woman, deeply loved though not so unrealistically patient as ""Marmee."" Good as it was, Meigs's book seemed colorless compared to Alcott's fiction. Johnston--by depicting the real life in all its complexity while showing the many links with the fiction--not only enriches understanding of Alcott's books but also paints a fascinating picture of her life. A must. Bibliography; photos and index not seen.