Monday, December 31, 2012

Civil War Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott

As part of my Civil War reading, I am trying to mix it up between fiction (contemporary and historical), non-fiction, memoir, war and social issues.  For my last book of 2012, I read Louisa May Alcott's collection of newspapers articles she wrote about her time as a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C. in December 1862 and January 1863. 

LMA only served as a nurse for three weeks, but this brief service changed her life profoundly.  Of this time, she said that she was rarely ill before it and never truly well afterwards. She had contracted typhus at the hospital and was treated with a compound containing mercury, which wreaked havoc on her body and most probably shortened her life.  On the other hand, her time as a nurse on her own in a city far from her Concord home during the war broadened her vision and deepened her perspective.

In typical Victorian lady fashion, LMA assumes the guise of Tribulation Periwinkle who then provides a first-person account of LMA's own experiences--deciding to join the nursing core, traveling alone by train to Washington, living in a boarding house, working in a hospital (she tended the wounded from the battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 11-15, 1862).  The latter encompasses so much--the men themselves, some old but most heart-breakingly young--she held their hands as they died, read them letters from home, and wrote their final goodbyes, comforted their loved ones--she dressed wounds, assisted surgeons, fed and cleaned and comforted, and then finally fell ill herself. 

At first the persona of Trib grated a bit--basically Jo March on steroids.  Too boisterous, too flip, too hale and hearty, but as LMA went deeper into hospital life, the voice matured and by the end of this short book, only 73 pages, I had come to admire LMA's warm and elegant expressions that transcended pathos.

As a primary source for Civil War nursing, it is exceptional in its realistic but respectful look at the price of war.  As a look at the young woman who "became" Louisa May Alcott, beloved American author, it is priceless--it provides a concentrated view of LMA, reflecting her values (home, hearth, family, compassion, racial equality, gender equality, and duty). 

I liked Little Women just fine, but I must say that I loved this collection of sketches.

1 comment:

  1. My thoughts exactly on Trib. I didn't like the book until the chapter called A Night and that's when the story really began. Nobody wrote so poignantly about death as did Louisa. Her stint at the hospital occurred 5 years after her younger sister Lizzie's death and nursing the soldiers surely resurrected that grief. I saw a lot of parallels between the way she described John Suhre and her descriptions of her late sister.

    I've read about Louisa May Alcott all my life, having devoured many biographies. But I didn't start actually reading her books until Hospital Sketches (thanks to a bio! :-)). I was hooked after that.

    I blog about Louisa if you'd like to visit: