By way of review (as mentioned in the previous post), The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien is an historical novel featuring Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. It covers the Civil War through the eyes of a fictitious Alcott cousin, Susan Gray, who comes to live with the Alcotts after being orphaned. Susan becomes Louisa’s constant companion, confidant and critic. Together they volunteer to serve as nurses in the Civil War where they meet Clara Barton; eventually Susan will work with Clara to continue her service in a most extraordinary way.
Normally I would not go through and summarize what happened in the story, but because I want to explore the interesting theories that O’Brien had about Louisa, it is necessary to give you a point of reference. I will do my best to avoid spoilers.
The Glory Cloak moves so quickly that I could have read it in one sitting if the time had presented itself. It was a blessing at the gym, seeing as I hadn’t worked out in three weeks. I was so engrossed in the story that I forgot all about my aches and pains!
The story begins with a 1997 discovery of Clara Barton’s office on the third floor of a building in Washington slated to be torn down. This is the office where Barton, with just a handful of volunteers, sought (successfully) to find and identify thousands of missing dead soldiers. This story, based on fact, is crucial to the plot.
Setting and the characters
Through her made-up characters (Susan Gray, John Sulie (based on the real life character of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches), Belle Poole, Liddy Getty), O’Brien takes the reader deep into the horror of a Civil War hospital inundated with wounded. She also takes us into the minds of her real characters, most especially Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton.
I have never read anything before on Clara so I cannot judge how realistic her portrayal was in the story. However, my interest was piqued and I plan on finding out more about her.
I do know Louisa fairly well and was intrigued with the theories that O’Brien floated about her throughout the story. I am going to explore those theories in detail in a followup to this post.
The main character
Susan Gray and her family visited the Alcotts for a week or two twice every year. Outspoken and spirited like her cousin, she and Louisa, ten years her senior, became close life-long friends. When Susan’s family was wiped out by a typhoid epidemic, she wrote to Louisa, asking to be taken in.
Susan delighted in Louisa’s brash and boyish ways. In one scene, the two girls are sitting in an apple tree; Louisa dares Susan to climb to a high branch and hang upside down by her knees. Eager to please though terrified at the thought, Susan complies and is secretly proud of herself for being so audacious.
It was this theme of the “dare” that would be repeated throughout the book.
What is the glory cloak?
The title of the book refers to a special real-life cloak made for the Alcott girls for their theatricals. Louisa came to use it whenever she wrote (complete with a hat) and while stories abound as to how it came into her possession, it was Lizzie (aka Beth in this story) who bequeathed the robe to Louisa despite her own fondness of it:
“Beth laughed, removing the wrap. ‘Oh girls, it’s too much for me. Lou, you’re the only one who can wear this and do it justice. You have the flair for it.’
‘No –‘ Lou began to protest.
Beth was firm. “It’s your cloak, It’s your glory cloak. You will do wonderful things wearing it, I am sure of it.’ “
It continued to be Louisa’s costume of choice whenever she would disappear into her vortex of writing.
Bonnets from 1866
Susan came to live with the Alcotts shortly after Lizzie had died. Louisa was establishing herself as the breadwinner of the family through her writing, and Susan, wishing also for purpose, used her talents as a hat maker in the local shop in downtown Concord.
Susan noticed immediately how duty-bound and somber her cousin had become. Scarred and yet motivated by all she had lost, Louisa was bound and determined to be the Alcott breadwinner and even tried to discourage Susan from working in the local shop, claiming that the Alcotts were “above” being merchants.
As the Civil War began to rev up, Louisa and Susan became restless, eager to become a real part of the action. Hearing that nurses were needed, they volunteered and set off together on their grand adventure to Washington, D.C. (known as Washington City at the time). They had no idea what they were getting into.
Reality hits home
Civil War union hospital SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress
Both sheltered and prim, Susan and Louisa see a much broader view of the world at the Union Hospital. Here O’Brien introduces several colorful characters including the worldly Liddy Getty and the unscrupulous assistant head nurse, Belle Poole.
The Glory Cloak uses Louisa’s Hospital Sketches and greatly expands upon the descriptions of pain, horror and death. Details are gruesome – there is no romanticizing here, especially when the wounded begin streaming in from the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg.
It is here that we meet the focal point of the novel, John Sulie.
From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches"
O’Brien describes John as Alcott described him: large, manly, exceedingly handsome. But while Louisa’s description in Hospital Sketches is that of a noble saint, O’Brien’s Sulie is rougher, mysterious and very well-read. Louisa is immediately attracted to him and the feeling is mutual. It begins with discussions of Milton and Whitman (Walt Whitman even makes a cameo appearance) and soon the chemistry between the two is obvious.
However, Louisa is not the only one attracted to Sulie – so is Susan. John Sulie becomes a major test to their friendship.
Eventually Louisa is sent home nearly dying of typhoid and Sulie disappears. Both she and Susan are greatly changed by their “grand adventure” and the deep sorrow that came of it. Louisa loses herself in her writing and Susan seeks greater purpose. Enter (again) Clara Barton.
The next grand adventure
Clara Barton during the Civil War from a detail of a Mathew Brady photo
Clara Barton has achieved a noble reputation for her nursing of the wounded in the field. Now she is obsessed with finding all the missing soldiers.
Susan offers to help but this time Louisa does not follow her cousin. Instead she goes to Europe as a companion to invalid Emma Weld (based on Anna Weld). Duty supersedes adventure for Louisa.
Clara and Susan, along Liddy Getty and Tom Cassidy, a soldier Susan had nursed who was sweet on her, work to answer thousands of letters from distraught families looking for their husbands and sons. Enter again John Sulie who holds the answer.
What follows is a breathtaking series of events (some tragic) that test the mettle of Susan’s friendship with Louisa. These events also demonstrate the amazing strength of one woman, Clara Barton, and the astonishing things she was able to accomplish.
And the verdict is …
I loved this book! I haven’t lost myself in a story this much since reading Gone with The Wind. The Glory Cloak is not nearly so epic, but it is powerful. I am so glad I had read Gone with the Wind because The Glory Cloak gives a decidedly northern point of view on the war. I found myself thinking of the southern side as presented through Scarlett O’Hara while reading O’Brien’s take.
The historical details are fascinating, especially the many references to personal feminine life such as hygiene and the change of life. I had always wondered how women in the 19th century dealt with these issues – now I have an idea.
Using Susan to get to Louisa
Susan Gray proved to be a terrific vehicle for getting in the heart, mind and soul of Louisa as well as other members of the Alcott family. It’s obvious which members of the family O’Brien found most interesting. Younger sister May was very Amy-like, yet still quite likable. Lizzie was hardly mentioned as if O’Brien didn’t know what to do with her. Anna played a small role but was beautifully presented.
O’Brien’s contempt for Bronson was palpable – the man could do nothing right! I found her presentation of Abba to be quite curious at first and couldn’t really figure out what she thought of her until I reached the end of the book.
Getting to know Clara
If historical fiction is meant to tempt us to find out more then O’Brien did her job well. Clara Barton was very interesting to me. The second half of the book focused on her and what a powerhouse she was! She lived the life of an autonomous, fiercely independent spinster woman with nobility and power. All I can say is, “Wow!”
I appreciated that O’Brien could be provocative without openly poking the reader with jabs (which is what I am finding with Geraldine Brooks’ March). The Glory Cloak showed this newbie writer just how bold one must be to write convincing historical fiction, especially if that fiction is based upon real-life, well-loved characters. O’Brien’s theories were backed up with thoughtful, well-executed and believable scenarios. She reinforced what I’ve long suspected, that one must dig very deep and set the imagination free to succeed at writing something that will carry the reader away and touch the heart. Writing is not for the fainthearted!
In a future post I will share some of O’Brien’s theories regarding Louisa. They changed forever the way I look Louisa and Hospital Sketches.
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