In 1862, at age 30, Louisa May Alcott intended to serve as a nurse in a Union hospital for three months. She only made it six weeks before she became ill with typhoid fever and had to go home.
During her time as a nurse, she had written letters home to her family about her experiences. Other people urged her to publish them. She fictionalized and changed them a bit, naming her heroine Tribulation Periwinkle. But the experiences were hers. The “sketches” were published in four parts in the Boston Commonwealth, an Abolitionist magazine edited by a friend of the family.
Louisa didn’t think much of the writings, and mainly hoped just to make a little money off them. But these sketches brought her writing to the public eye, though she had written for the Atlantic Monthly before. She was urged to compile the sketches in a book, so she added material to them and published them as her first book in 1863.
Though there are six chapters in the book, we don’t really get to see Nurse Periwinkle interact with the soldiers until the third. The first story, “Obtaining Supplies,” deals with her decision to go, saying good-bye to her family, and a lot of frustrating detours and obstacles before finding the right people to get her documentation, tickets, etc. She comments about halfway through her troubles on this day:
I’m a woman’s rights woman, and if any man had offered help in the morning, I should have condescendingly refused it, sure that I could do everything as well, if not better, myself. My strong-mindedness had rather abated since then, and I was now quite ready to be a “timid trembler,” if necessary.
“A Forward Movement” tells of her travels to Washington by train and boat, including the sites she saw, people she encountered, problems, fears, and funny things experienced along the way.
Chapter 3, “A Day,” tells of her first day in the hospital where she was put to work right away. Within three days they received a large influx of wounded from Fredericksburg, and she was warned, “Now you will begin to see hospital life in earnest, for you won’t probably find time to sit down all day, and may think yourself fortunate if you get to bed by midnight.”
The sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant, entering my ward, admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings, and returned to the path of duty, which was rather “a hard road to travel” just then.
This chapter and the fourth, “A Night,” are the best in the book. “Nurse Periwinkle” tells of her experiences and the men she met and treated. Some of the encounters are touching, some are funny as she “entertained a belief that he who laughed most was surest of recovery.”
In the fifth chapter, “Off Duty,” she tells of becoming sick herself and isolated. They must not have realized she had typhoid fever yet, because she took walks in town, visited another hospital in much better shape than theirs, visited the Senate Chamber and other sites until bad weather and worsening symptoms forced her inside. Even then, she did mending while observing the goings-on outside from her window. Finally she was so ill that her father came to bring her home.
I never shall regret the going, though a sharp tussle with typhoid, ten dollars, and a wig, are all the visible results of the experiment; for one may live and learn much in a month. A good fit of illness proves the value of health; real danger tries one’s mettle; and self-sacrifice sweetens character. Let no one who sincerely desires to help the work on in this way, delay going through any fear; for the worth of life lies in the experiences that fill it, and this is one which cannot be forgotten. All that is best and bravest in the hearts of men and women, comes out in scenes like these; and, though a hospital is a rough school, its lessons are both stern and salutary; and the humblest of pupils there, in proportion to his faithfulness, learns a deeper faith in God and in himself.
I believe I read in her biography that she’d had to have her head shaved–I don’t know if that was treatment for typhus or due to something else. She doesn’t mention it here except for the brief mention of the wig above.
The last chapter, “Postscript,” includes answers to questions readers had asked but also more observations and stories. I especially liked one quote where she, “having known a sister’s sorrow,” sympathizes with a woman who lost her brother: “I just put my arms about her, and began to cry in a very helpless but hearty way; for, as I seldom indulge in this moist luxury, I like to enjoy it with all my might, when I do.”
Along with the tales of some of “our brave boys,” she writes of mismanagement at the hospital as well as poor treatment of Black people. She also tells of some of the doctors, some kind and thoughtful, some clinical and lacking in bedside manner.
I’d have to say I like her later writing better. But even here, her wit, keen observation, pathos, and humor shine through.
I’m counting this book for the Classic Short Stories category of the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.