Writing a novel about a well-known author—using that writer’s voice and linguistic techniques—is risky: It can smack of cheap imitation and Miramax glossiness. But Washington’s Patricia O’Brien makes no missteps in her fictionalization of Louisa May Alcott’s life.
Though much of the novel is historically accurate, the narrator—Louisa’s orphaned cousin, Susan Gray—is fictional. Fabricated to provide a window into the otherwise elusive author, Susan is as much the protagonist as Alcott.
O’Brien chronicles Alcott’s life during the Civil War, both in Concord, Massachusetts—where Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne make guest appearances—and as a volunteer nurse in Washington, where she and Susan take inspiration from Clara Barton, the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
When war breaks out, the two set out for Washington, hoping to play a more intimate role in the war than the safety of Concord allowed. At Georgetown’s Union Hotel Hospital, where the young women nurse soldiers, they get more intimacy than they bargained for. Amid amputated limbs and typhoid fever, a gripping story of love, courage, betrayal, and liberation unfolds.
At times, the emotions traded among Louisa, Susan, and John Sulie, a soldier for whom they have a shared—and jealous—love, are so palpable it’s easy to forget that Susan is a made-up character. Fittingly, the power of fiction is one of the book’s themes: For Louisa, the stories she creates are an escape, a personal retreat. As Susan says, Louisa “could not tolerate the loss of the man she loved. . . . And so she created the story she could tolerate. Do we all not, in some way, do that with our lives?”
Despite her literary success, Alcott lamented much of the “sensational rubbish” she churned out to support her family; some biographers contend that this sense of duty hindered her from a “greater literary flowering.” Though this rich, eloquent book is in part a tribute to her, one might imagine that The Glory Cloak—a Little Women for a higher reading level—is the book Alcott always aspired to write.