A historical novel mingles known historical or mythological figures with the characters invented by the novelist. In David Malouf’s Ransom, we meet the King Priam we thought we knew from The Iliad interacting with a local wagon driver. Or, in the novels of Anatoli Rybakov, a very real and terrible Stalin pursues his obsessions, while the novel’s invented characters — who seem just as real — live out the consequences of his crime. The problem for the novelist is not so much the invented characters, for those she can control, but to portray known persons just as believably.
In The Glory Cloak, Patricia O’Brien succeeds, partially. As admirers of Louisa May Alcott already know, during the Civil War she volunteered as a nurse in Union Hospital in Washington and served there until typhoid fever took her down. Patricia O’Brien imagines the hospital and the wounded men there, as well as an acquaintance with Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross) and an invented cousin/sister, Susan Gray. Mostly it works. The opening Concord sections are a little stiff, perhaps too respectful, but the hospital environment is credibly menacing, making clear the courage of the women who served there. Those who have read Alcott’s Hospital Sketches cannot forget the noble blacksmith who died of his wounds. O’Brien takes that character and builds a story of intrigue and romance.
When Susan, the invented character, reads her friend’s Little Women, her immediate reaction is “she left me out!” Alcott the author understands her disappointment; she also understands the danger of making herself a character in fiction.
“I want to make one thing clear, first. Father isn’t in my book either,” she said.
“I did see that.” I shifted my feet.
And then she said something curious. “I was Jo, wasn’t I?”
“Of course you were,” I said, surprised.
“I am no longer.”
The Glory Cloak is a much better recreation of the Alcott story than other novels which have attempted the same thing. It succeeds, however, because the best parts of the story are turned over to the novelist’s own characters, Susan Gray and the noble blacksmith.