I happened to stumble upon a great find: The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, 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.
A life-changing book
Everyone has read books that have changed their life in some way. The Glory Cloak is one of those that I can count as life-changing. It was the right book to read at this time in my life. Besides giving me a new interpretation of Louisa’s life through the main character, Susan Gray, it also showed me plainly what it takes to write a good historical novel.
It has taken me all of my life (56 years) to admit that I am a writer. Writing has lain dormant in me for so many of those years. As a child I read voraciously and wrote little books. I found my first biography of Louisa in The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard and read it so many times that the book is tattered and worn.
Turning away …
Discouragement from a 7th grade English teacher plus adolescence plus a new passion for the guitar steered me away from reading and writing for most of my life (with the exception of songwriting). Every five years or so I would tackle a new biography about Louisa, lose myself in it, and then move on. That’s all the reading I did. Until now.
Coming upon the second anniversary of my mother’s death (April 22), I have been lately reflecting on how much reading and writing about Louisa has meant to me. When my mother died, a large part of me went with her. My passion for music which had been dying anyway, was gone.
… and coming home
Adrift after several years of helping to care for my mother, I came upon two books that my husband had bought for me several months earlier. He knew of my love for Louisa. Those two books were The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees and Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.
Reisen’s book led me to Hospital Sketches, the first book of Louisa’s that I had ever read. The chapter known as “A Night” where she wrote so poignantly of the death of John the Virginian blacksmith, was a like a balm on my grief. Louisa wrote with such understanding about death, both emotionally and spiritually. After all, she was still grieving the loss of her sister, Lizzie, and her long-time friend, Henry David Thoreau. Her grief spoke to me.
Stoking the fire
It was then that I decided I wanted an outlet for all that I was feeling about Louisa and her writing, and this blog was born. Each day as I read, wrote and immersed myself deeper into her life, her work and her contemporaries, I discovered a fire that I thought had long ago been extinguished. Every now and then I would feel a wind under me, lifting me up as I would write. Research and taking notes became a passionate endeavor. That “lifting up” became more and more frequent such that now I long for those Saturday and Sunday mornings when I can at last lay aside work and family, hole up in my sacred space, and write.
I began to develop theories about Louisa. One in particular, her relationship with her younger sister Lizzie, has become a mission. Lizzie, the “shadow sister” often overlooked and dismissed. How many times have I heard that “no one would ever want to be Beth!” Yet there are many, many Beths in this world and I believe I am one of them. When I see historical fiction about Louisa where Lizzie is referred to as “Beth”, I know the writer is dismissing her. Beth was Louisa’s glorification of Lizzie but she was not a real flesh-and-blood person; Lizzie was. I feel called to be a voice for Lizzie.
Not for the fainthearted!
The Glory Cloak has shown me a way to achieve this purpose. It first has taught me that you cannot call yourself a writer if you are fainthearted. It may seem like writing is a “safe” thing to do – after all, you are all by yourself, lost inside of your own world that no one else can enter … what’s risky about that?
Patricia O’Brien has taught me otherwise, showing me that provocative theories can be floated if they are backed up by a well-developed, gripping story. Characters like Lizzie, despite the lack of hard facts, can be fleshed out. Any character can have a voice.
O’Brien has shown me the tools she used to dig deeper, expanding and setting free, her imagination. I only know the generalities now and will need to work hard to get to the particulars, but The Glory Cloak assures me that it can be done.
Perched for a flying leap
Historical fiction requires risk-taking with fan fiction being especially risky. How many millions of Little Women fans are out there? And how many of those fans have dug as deeply as I have, obsessed with the life of the author? I met about fifty of those types of fans in Concord several weeks ago at the Little Women panel discussion I attended. I felt right at home and very intimidated, all at the same time. It was exhilarating. It strengthened my resolve with regards to my own little mission.
Oil for the engine
The wonderful thing about writing is that all it takes to get the engine started again is a good book. Between work, Lent and Easter, I totally fell out of my writing routine. I’m so thankful I found a book as compelling as The Glory Cloak. It swept me away and in some ways, left me feeling sad. But it was the oil that primed this engine that was surely sputtering!
Getting into the book
In the next post I will get into more particulars about the book, and in the final post, I will get into the theories which O’Brien explored. Thanks to those theories, I see Louisa through a new lens, only adding to the richness of her life.
Thank you for indulging me! One of the things I’ve failed to mention is how much is has meant for me to enjoy such great company on this journey. Through this blog I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of you, whether it be in person, on the phone or by email, Twitter and/or your own blogs and books. I feel privileged to be a part of such a special community. The writers, teachers, students of all ages and fans I have met have been most generous. You are a bighearted and welcoming group!
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