The Glory Cloak, the new book by Patricia O’Brien, is a lot of fun to read. I have spent many warm summer hours sitting in the sun, reading historical romance novels. This book can be counted among the best of them, possibly because the focus is not really on the romance at all, but on the friendship between two women. O’Brien draws convincing friendships between the real-life author Louisa May Alcott, and later Civil War nursing heroine and founder of the Red Cross Clara Barton, and a fictional narrator, Susan Gray, that rings true enough to keep me turning the page.
O’Brien became interested in Alcott’s Civil War nursing work while reading her memoir, Hospital Sketches, and was interested in exploring Alcott’s persona past the very public one that was drawn in her most famous work, Little Women. Alcott did indeed write some very adult material, from her very personal Hospital Sketches to potboilers such as the Behind a Mask or Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. O’Brien traces Alcott’s writing career throughout the novel, culminating in her publishing Little Women – much to the chagrin of the fictional narrator, who has been snubbed due to perceived betrayal by this point in the novel and is not included in the narrative! Such conceits aside, The Glory Cloak does a good job of presenting Alcott’s history, down to little-known details such as her infatuation with Thoreau (a twist I had to double check with a quick conference with a very dedicated American Lit professor) and the conflict that arose in the Alcotts’ daily life because of their idealistic but impractical father Bronson, the social leader of the Transcendentalist movement, who could never seem to put food on the table for his family. Unless they have done the tour of Orchard House in Concord, the Alcotts’ home, fans of Little Women may not know that the grown-up Louisa May Alcott, who never married, was the one to support her family throughout her adult life, a fact that is emphasized throughout this novel.
O’Brien takes these real-life events, and with the addition of Susan Gray, crafts a believable story around the life of the Alcotts. Susan is a distant relative of the Alcotts who comes to stay with them when her parents both die in an epidemic. When she is sent to live with a no-nonsense spinster relative, she sends a plea to Louisa to come and rescue her, which she does. Susan calls Concord, Massachusetts, the home of the Alcotts, home for most of the rest of her life. The first part of the novel describes the domestic life of the Alcotts and Susan and the growing camaraderie between the two women, who are ten years apart in age.
At the onset of the Civil War, Louisa and Susan, being the spirited young women they are, chafe under the restrictions placed on women’s expected roles in the war effort. Sewing bees and charity work done from relative safety in Concord are not enough for these women, who wish they could be closer to the front lines. So they sign up to be nurses, and travel to Washington. Their innocent eyes are met with the horrors of war for the first time, and they both take on their nursing responsibilities with gusto, and find their friendship being tested and strengthened throughout this time. However, there is an undercurrent of competition that comes from – what else! – their interest in the same man, one of the patients. Later on, after the war is over and Louisa has gone on to other duties, Susan becomes involved with Clara Barton’s real-life effort to search for the still unaccounted for missing and dead of the war.
This is not a subtle novel, and there are few surprises in the plot for those well-versed in the genre of historical fiction. However, if you are like an old English teacher of mine who said she got all of her historical knowledge from reading historical fiction, you will not be disappointed. This well-researched novel is full of historical facts that are rarely reported because they happened not on the battlefield, but in the lives of women during the Civil War. And I said it at the beginning of the review, but I will say it again – this book is just plain fun to read. Literary geeks like me who are looking for some light reading could spend a few pleasant hours sitting in the sun this summer – or like I did, in the cool spring weather of the Midwest, curled up in bed – reading this novel, and not be disappointed.