Review of Patricia O’Brien’s The Glory Cloak

The
Glory Cloak

Patricia O'Brien
Touchstone, 2004

*****

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.

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