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The Glory Cloak

A Novel of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton


From childhood, Susan Gray and her cousin Louisa May Alcott have shared a safe, insular world of adventures—a world that begins to evaporate with the outbreak of the Civil War. Frustrated with sewing uniforms and wrapping bandages, the two women journey to Washington, D.C.'s Union Hospital to volunteer as nurses. Which is a horrifying experience. There they meet the Clara Barton—the legendary Angel of the Battlefield—and she becomes their idol and mentor. Soon one wounded soldier begins to captivate and puzzle them all—a man who claims to be a blacksmith, but whose appearance and sharp intelligence suggest he might not be who he says he is.

Journeying through the apex of Louisa's fame as the author of Little Women, and Lincoln's appointment of Clara, this novel is ultimately the story of friendship between the women who broke the mold society set for them.

Reading Group Guide
1. In The Glory Cloak, historical fact and fiction blend seamlessly. How did you feel about rediscovering Louisa May Alcott through the eyes of a fictional character? Did reading this novel enhance your understanding of Louisa May Alcott?
2. Describe Susan's role in the Alcott family. How can she be considered both an integral member of the family and an outsider?
3. How would you characterize the early friendship between Louisa and Susan? How does it change over time? Was it realistic for them to think that that form of their friendship would last forever?
4. Quoting Emerson, Louisa says, "it is impossible to extricate ourselves from the times in which we live" (89). How is the novel as a whole guided by that statement? What famous Americans make appearances in the novel, and what do their presence add to the story?
5. At what point does Louisa cease to be the carefree, courageous girl of Susan's memory? Why? What unique burdens does she bear, and why won't she allow herself to enjoy the fruits of her labor?
6. What does Louisa's youthful enthusiasm -- even passion -- for Henry Thoreau reveal about her? How does it foreshadow her eventual relationship with John Sulie?
7. How would you describe Louisa's vision of the ideal family, and how does this vision shape her writing of Little Women? Why is Louisa so unreasonably upset about Anna's marriage? Similarly, what makes her relationship with her father unique?
8. How do Susan and Louisa's experiences as nurses mature them in ways that life in Concord never could have? Like Louisa, Clara Barton is a guiding influence in Susan's life. What does Susan learn from Clara that she cannot learn from Louisa?
9. After the war, Louisa refuses to believe that John Sulie is still alive, writing his death firmly into her book and into her mind. Why is it so crucial to Louisa that he die in her fictional account?
10. Discuss how John Sulie could be viewed as both a typical soldier and a singular hero. How does his experience of war change him? Why is he unable to return Susan's love, and why do you think that he ultimately chooses to take his own life?
11. When Louisa decides not to return from Europe to be with John, even he suspects that she preferred his fictional self. Do you agree? Had the two been reunited, how do you think both of them would have changed, if at all?
12. Was Susan right to confess all to Louisa? Do you think Susan was in the wrong -- or had Louisa truly given up her claim to John?
13. Reflecting on her life with Louisa, Susan asks herself, "did I lose or find myself through Louisa? Did she consume me or set me free (6)?" Having now heard her full tale, how would you answer her?
14. Susan is critical of the way that Louisa occasionally bends her reality into a more palatable fiction. In Susan's telling of their shared story, however, is it possible that she's guilty of the same? Are we ever fully knowable, even to ourselves? Don't we all fashion our lives to fit a story?
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Patricia O'Brien is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Glory Cloak and co-author of I Know Just What You Mean, a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Robert Morgan bestselling author of Gap Creek From the radical, transcendentalist village life of nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts, to the horrors of the Civil War hospitals in Washington, D.C., Patricia O'Brien has given us a portrait of our country at its time of greatest peril and greatest hope. Part romance, part mystery, part history, The Glory Cloak is most of all a story of remarkable women, their private struggles and public deeds that helped make possible the best of our own world.

Gore Vidal Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton are splendid protagonists in this vivid and revealing story of our Civil War.

More books from this author: Patricia O'Brien