The many heroes produced by and during the American Civil War have been well served by the countless historians who continue to write new books about them even today. But somewhat neglected have been the women who contributed so much to the war efforts of both sides of this tragic war, women who disguised themselves as men and joined battle regiments, women who served as nurses in military hospitals under conditions that can hardly be imagined today, and women who stayed home to run family farms and businesses on their own.
Patricia O'Brien's historical novel, The Glory Cloak, recounts the experiences of two of those women: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, and Clara Barton, battlefield nurse to the Union Army who placed her own life in jeopardy to save the lives of others. Their stories are told through the eyes of Susan Gray, a fictitious third cousin of the Alcott sisters who joined their household as a child after the loss of her own parents. Susan, ten years younger than Louisa, is so much like the tomboyish Louisa that the two develop a relationship that is closer than any that Louisa has with any of her sisters.
Susan and Louisa quickly grow frustrated with sewing uniforms, wrapping bandages and knitting socks for Union soldiers and decide to do more. That decision brings them to Washington D.C.'s Union Hospital where they are taken on as nurses under hospital conditions for which nothing could have prepared them. At first overwhelmed by the stench of unwashed bodies, festering wounds and un-emptied bedpans, the women soon find themselves carrying sawed off arms and legs to be dumped in piles on the hospital grounds and trying to comfort soldiers painfully suffering their final hours.
Amidst all the chaos that is Union Hospital, Louisa and Susan meet Clara Barton who sometimes visits the hospital to see the men with whom she has served in the field. The two nurses idolize Barton because of her selfless bravery and, as the friendship develops over time, Barton becomes their mentor and adviser.
The heart of The Glory Cloak is the friendship between Susan Gray and Louisa May Alcott, a relationship that is shattered for several years because of the love that both women feel for one mysterious soldier whom they nursed at Union Hospital. But Patricia O'Brien wraps her story in the historical context of its times and along the way the reader comes to know well the Alcott family and friends, including the Emersons and the Thoreaus. Never having read Alcott's Little Women, I was only vaguely aware of her personal and family history before reading The Glory Cloak. Now I want to learn more about the remarkable Alcott family and their times and, in particular, I want to read Alcott's Hospital Sketches, in which she recounts her experiences as a Civil War nurse.
I was drawn to The Glory Cloak because I am a fan of Civil War fiction, and I was not disappointed in that regard, but I think this novel will appeal equally to fans of Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. It is a wonderfully touching story cloaked in historical fact, a painless history lesson for those who might sometimes find history to be a dull subject.
Rated at: 4.0