I fell in love with the writing of Geraldine Brooks when I read Year of Wonders, so I was anxious to tackle her new novel, March. While I found the story beautifully written and richly moving, it won't appeal to everyone.
Brooks takes the well known story of Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) and weaves a tale centering on the absentee father and husband, Peter March. March starts out as a Yankee peddler, but the abolitionist movement eventually spurs him on to become a preacher. He marries Marmee, and they have four daughters. Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, provides the blueprint for the Reverend March, and his good friends are Concord neighbors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. When the Civil War begins, March feels it his duty to enlist-even though he well past the age of the average soldier.
March is a man of high ideals and unreachable dreams, but his many flaws keep him from always acting in a noble or heroic manner. His efforts during the war are both heart warming and tragic. Brooks gives us a glimpse of some little-known aspects of the war including the running of seized plantations by northern men and former slaves (contraband). Sometimes conditions weren't much better than working under southern plantation owners. We also get to see a bit of the abolitionist movement as well as the Underground Railroad.
Brooks writes March in the first person (all but several chapters in Peter's voice). You can read each sentence and feel the beauty of 19th Century written and spoken words. But sometimes, this becomes plodding and the plot is slow to develop at the beginning. I can imagine some readers giving up. Also, while I thoroughly enjoyed March, I might have had an even greater appreciation if I had read Little Women.
The Afterword provided a good chuckle. Brooks' husband is Tony Horwitz of Confederates in the Attic. She apparently loathed his extensive Civil War research. But in the Afterward, she apologizes for refusing to get out the car at Antietam, for whining about the heat at Gettysburg, and for complaining about the shelf space needed to house his Civil War book collection. To our benefit, it now appears that she has been bitten by this same obsessive bug
This recent novel by Geraldine Brooks displays her passion for journalism. Here, the fictional character from Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women", the absent father, Mr. March, who is off fighting in the Civil War, is given center stage.
Coupled with scrupulous research of the time period and her wildly creative imagination, she fashions a riveting tale. She captures the sights, the sounds and the smells of a long-gone period of time that has shaped America forever. Some of it is based on the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who were friends of Louisa May Alcott's father. And I do believe she encapsulated perfectly the historical realities of the time, especially in Concord, where abolitionist families hid runaway slaves in an underground railroad and there was constant intellectual discussion about the politics around them.
We get to meet Mr. March as a young itinerant Connecticut peddler in the South years before the Civil War. He's in the bloom of youth and attracted to a slave girl. Inevitably, he gets to sees first-hand the injustices of slavery.
Later, we watch him romance and eventually wed the outspoken Marmee. We see his joy at the birth of his four daughters, and watch his faith rise as his fortunes get fritted away with misplaced investments in John Brown's failed ventures, cumulating in the tragedy at Harper's Ferry which was supposed to be a slave rebellion. All this is told in flashback, as he writes letters home to his family, hoping to spare them the horrors that he sees every day during the War.
There were aspects of the Civil War story I had never heard of before. For example, as a Union Chaplain and teacher, Mr. March was sent to a plantation that had been abandoned by its Southern owner and became a refuge for runnaway slaves. A northerner had leased it and was actually paying the former slaves a wage although their treatment under this new plan was not much better than under the old system. Also, the man who had leased the plantation seemed at first to be cruel and unjust, but as the book continued, we soon learned of his hard choices and he turned into complex and interesting character.
I was totally swept up in the story and couldn't put the book down despite the occasional feeling I had that some of the history was a little too revisionist. But this is a novel and not a true story, and the writer's view of the world is through modern eyes. I understand and do forgive her for this just because the story was so good.
In spite of its faults, I loved this novel and was sorry to see it end. Recommended, especially for history buffs and fans of Louisa May Alcott.
Taking a page from the classic Little Women, Brooks considers the possible fate of Mr. March, the father from Louisa May Alcott's novel, gone to the Civil War while his dutiful family waits behind. In difficult financial straights since an injudicious investment, March's family has adapted to their reduced fortunes, valuing the fruits of the mind over material possessions, all convinced "that the greater part of a man's duty consists in abstaining from much that he is in the habit of consuming."
A learned man who has traveled the country in his youth, Mr. March is later content to raise his four daughters in a pastoral landscape in Concord, Connecticut, with esteemed neighbors and fellow philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. For her part, Mrs. Marsh (Marmee) is an abolitionist in spirit and action, while many northerners are still mired in discussions about the morality of slavery. A long-time member of the Underground Railroad, Marmee is fondest of her husband's nature when he supports her anti-slavery convictions with equal fervor.
Although older than most Union soldiers, Marsh joins the war effort as a chaplain. Broad-minded to a fault, March extends comfort to the injured and dying, torn by the violence around him and the extreme youth of soldiers on both sides. While Marsh believes the war is motivated by the noble effort to free the slaves, he is not oblivious to other realities involved and many of the Union soldiers are there by conscription.
The dialog is perfect, relative to the era and prone to prodigious verbiage. Nor is March suffering from a lack of moral persuasion, so conscience-riddled as to be a bit of a bore, rich in character if not in goods. However, excessive wordiness is also the flaw in this novel, an exercise in moral demagoguery that is appropriate to the age, but often tedious and lacking in passion. One wants March (and his beloved Marmee for that matter) to be a bit more human. For every flawed decision March agonizes over, he suffers equal self-flagellation. Even after a nearly mortal illness, March perseveres, pulling himself together lest his family be sullied by his faults.
On the positive side, the naive beliefs of the abolitionists are examined, revealing the barbarism and sadism that exist in any war. There is profit to be made, exploitation of the unfortunate and greed in excess, regardless of noble intent. Prejudice is not constrained by geography, righteousness a flagrant cloak, frequently hiding the truth of war.
Most of the novel is in first-person perspective, but final chapters are from other viewpoints, Mrs. March and the ex-slave, Grace Clement, where the novel finally comes to life. If only the entire book offered this occasional change of perspective. Instead, March carries the burden of the plot; unfortunately, it is the reader's burden as well. Brooks is an excellent writer, with the potential to enliven historical perspective. In future novels, I hope the author's characters are allowed to breathe humanity into the facts that cost the blood of thousands. Luan Gaines/ 2005.
Although I greatly admired Geraldine Brooks' earlier novel, YEAR OF WONDERS (despite its slightly rabbit-from-the-hat ending), I was wary of starting this one, since I knew its title character, March, was based upon the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN, a book that I have not read. I need not have worried; Brooks' novel stands confidently by itself and supplies any back-story that is necessary. I have always been put off (perhaps in my ignorance) by what seemed an aura of Victorian sentimentalism surrounding the Alcott books, so when MARCH began with a letter home from the battlefield written in exactly this vein, I almost threw it down. But again I need not have worried; the general tone of MARCH is far from sentimental; one of its major themes, indeed, concerns what CANNOT be said in a letter home, and the unbearable pressures and unintended dishonesties which result from the wholesome desire not to bring pain to those one loves. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy may be safe with their mother Marmee in their simple home in Concord, but the experiences of their father further South are anything but a children's tale.
Brooks wries that her novels are about "faith and catastrophe"; this was true of THE YEAR OF WONDERS, but it comes much closer to home here. While ostensibly filling in the story of the fictional March father from LITTLE WOMEN, absent with the Union army in the Civil War, Brooks goes way beyond some literary what-if. Extending the quasi-autobiographical nature of Alcott's book, she draws upon the real-life character of the novelist's father, Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist philosopher, educator, and utopian idealist, the friend of Emerson and Thoreau. But since this is fiction, the character may be made younger and emotionally vulnerable, thrust into the fighting, and, even more searing for him, brought into contact with the "liberated" slaves on former plantations. The result is to expose the moral ambiguities of the war and slavery in a manner approaching the power of Edward Jones' THE KNOWN WORLD, and test the emotional honesty and moral courage of this noble but imperfect man of peace almost to breaking point.
A rich and complex book, highly recommended. For further discussion, see my review of E. L. Doctorow's THE MARCH.
on November 6, 2005
From a treasure trove of written word by Bronson Alcott & his family (including Louisa May Alcott) and friends H.D. Thoreau, R.W. Emerson, & John Brown, comes the premise for this book. Louisa Alcott's work always left us wondering about the absent father & the true sacrifices made on his part & on his familiy's part so that he, a married man & father of four girls, could go off to join the Civil War as a chaplain.
Geraldine Brooks has filled in those gaps in the narrative and introduced us to the people of the underground railroad. Those who used it & those who provided it are revealed in this wonderful novel. Revealed as well, are the things seen, heard & experienced by Mr. March (the father in "Little Women") as he moves from battlefield to schoolroom to fugitive in this soul stirring tale. If you've ever wondered what it was like to be a soldier in battle, read this book. But even more so, if you've ever wanted to know more about the personal side of slavery before & after the Civil War you will want to read this illuminating tale. If you thought you knew about people's attitiudes about Blacks, think again; this book sheds new light on the current attitudes of the day. Don't you ever wonder how the freed slaves made it out of bondage to living life on their own? Do you ever think about how difficult it must have been to do that? It is nothing short of miraculous.
Martin Luther King said, "Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them."
How do you succeed when everyone thinks that of you? This book will open your eyes to their pain.
Mr. March went off to war as one kind of man & came back home as quite another; changed totally physically & spiritually by the things he both witnessed & participated in. There is no way that he just returned to the bosom of his family & resumed his life as usual. The same can be said of anyone who has seen the things he has seen. The story is as true today as it was in the 1860's. This is a lesson well learned & a book worthy of your time. If you love to read as I do, you too, will be changed by the message of this book.
on August 18, 2005
I loved this novel, and could not put it down.
Itl chronicles the experiences of the "Little Women's" absent father, providing accounts of his travels in antebellum Virginia, his courtship of the intense and rebellious Marmee, his love for a slave woman, his attempts to retain his ideals as a soldier during the Civil War, and the difficulties of adjusting to life in Concord after he is discharged from the army.
The characterizations are complex and multi-dimensional; readers of Alcott's works will particularly enjoy the portrayal of Marmee as an independent thinker. Ms. Brooks was a war correspondent in Somalia and Bosnia, and spares nothing in her narrations of the battle for the bluff, guerilla attacks on camps of "contraband slaves," and the horrendous conditions of wartime hospitals.
However, none of these descriptions are gratuitous. Rather, they serve to a)educate the reader on how unprepared--ideologically, materially, and logistically--the United States was to receive former slaves into society and b) remind us of how fortunate Americans are not to have experienced war on our soil in 140 years.
on August 11, 2007
March is told largely in the words of Mr. March, father of all those "little women," and it encompasses the year that he spent as a Union chaplain during the early part of the Civil War. Ever the idealist, one who at times refused to recognize the demands of the real world or to compromise his principles in order to better get along with others, March quickly managed to get on the bad side of both the men to whom he hoped to minister and that of his superior officers. As so often happens during war, March lived a lifetime during his one year of service, a year in which he learned more about himself than he really wanted to know. He came to realize that his ideals and principles did not necessarily come with the courage to do the right thing when to do so put him in personal danger. He ended his year a broken man, one barely alive and, more importantly, one who considered his year of service to have been a disaster for himself and everyone he tried to help.
Along the way, March unexpectedly finds himself revisiting a plantation he remembered from his days as a young traveling salesman trying to build the nest egg he hoped to invest for the remainder of his life. Some twenty years after his first visit, the home is now an emergency hospital for Union troops and life there is nothing like the one he remembered from before. But one thing has not changed. Grace Clements, the mulatto slave woman he was so attracted to on his first visit, is still there and he is still powerfully attracted to her. Grace Clements comes to be one of the two most important women in March's life, in fact.
Having so consistently irritated the troops to whom he was assigned, March is assigned to spend the bulk of his war at a cotton plantation teaching liberated slaves to read and write. This is my one quibble with the book. While, in fact, some southern cotton plantations were leased to northern entrepreneurs during the war so that much needed cotton could be brought to market for benefit of the North, this did not occur nearly so early in the war as portrayed in March. Despite the fact that the heart of the story takes place on this plantation, I could never completely forget just how unlikely it would have been for March to find himself on such a plantation during his particular year of the war.
But that's a minor thing because March has so much to offer. It is filled with the kind of period detail that marks the best historical fiction and fans of Little Women will very likely find it to be the perfect companion piece to one of their favorite novels.
on August 29, 2006
I loved the first two chapters of March. The description of the rout at Ball's Bluff and March's failure to save a fellow soldier was harrowing. The discrepancy between his letters and his thoughts promised a novel with secrets, irony, and hard-won truths. The unexpected kindness and complexity of the white Southerners in chapter two suggested that the book would offer a fresh perspective on more than just Louisa May Alcott. But despite all that, the novel started to flag somewhere in the third chapter. I enjoyed watching March reconcile his ideals with reality, but after a while that process seemed thematic rather than genuine. The language, which initially seemed rich, started to look like research. When Brooks started paraphrasing Thoreau and lifting stories from Twain, her prose paled in comparison. It made me pick up Little Women, which sounded much better to my ear.
Grace was a fascinating character, but it felt like Brooks was teasing us with her relationships, lies, and secrets. After a while I lost any hope that she would keep her secrets or possess any mystery. Eventually Brooks would use those secrets to make points or to amaze the reader. I wanted more from Grace and March. The sections on contraband presented a new and disturbing aspect of the war which I never knew. Ms. Brooks's research throughout the novel was fine, but ultimately it felt like her passion was history rather than real life. Some say that ideas take firmer hold when they're attached to the emotion of a story, and I'm sure that's true for many readers of March, but I felt manipulated, perhaps because the research and the facts came first. The characters seemed to tag along behind.
Part 2 began encouragingly because Marmee's voice was a welcome change, but soon enough she started doing the author's bidding: I started to wonder whether she sounded at all different from her husband. I wasn't curious enough to put her language to the test - she probably did speak differently - but I never sat up and appreciated her speech as much as I liked her thoughts. In the end the ironies and plot twists felt willed, the metaphors and epiphanies obvious and programmatic. The ending was appropriately sentimental - I got misty-eyed - but that owed as much to a return to Little Women as to the cumulative effect of the horrors that March endured. Thankfully, Brooks didn't put a band-aid on his trauma. I admire her ideas and feelings about non-violence, truth, and the complexities of love. My big complaint is that they drive the novel which never seems to have a life of its own.
With its mixture of the heroic and the cowardly, the idealistic and the base, Geraldine Brooks fine novel "March" reminded me of why the Civil War continues, and rightly so, to fascinate many Americans. The novel presents a picture of the ravages and effects of the War upon our country and upon a small family in Concord, Massachusetts. The novel is nominally a sort of follow-up to "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, with a Bronson Alcott-like character as the hero. But this framing of the story is, for the most part, of little relevance to the theme and power of the book.
At the outset of the Civil War, March the primary character of the story, is a 39-year old minister of highly unorthodox religious views. He is also an idealist and an abolitionist who has lost his wealth in support of John Brown and who is a friend of Emerson and Thoreau. The other two primary characters in the story are Marmee, March's strong-willed and proto-modernist wife, and Grace, a former slave. At the age of 18, March had met Grace when he journeyed though the South as a peddler. The two are attracted to each other, and March sees Grace receive a terrible whipping as a result of her efforts in assisting March teach other slaves on the plantation -- Grace is literate -- to read and write.
The book turns on March's war experiences during the first year of the struggle with flashbacks to his early life, including his early encounter with Grace and with Southern plantation life, his unusual courtship of Marmee, his loss of his fortune in support of John Brown and his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau. The descriptions of the intellectual millieu of early Concord, particularly of Thoreau, are among the best parts of the book. Quotations from Thoreau's "Walden" are quietly weaved into the text of "Marsh".
Even though he is 39 years old, Marsh's idealism and commitment to the end of slavery make him rush to enlist and leave his family when the Civil War breaks out. During his period in the service, Marsh sees much that is evil in the conduct of the war and he witnesses slaughter in the small but terrible early battle of Ball's Bluff. He is soon transferred to teach newly-freed slaves at a plantation along the Mississippi River called Oak Landing which has been leased by a young Northerner named Canning. He learns for himself the great difficulties that will be involved in teaching the freed people. Following an encounter with Confederate irregulars, March becomes gravely ill, and Marmee is called to the fetid hospital in Washington, D.C. to which he has been brought for cure. Grace has become a Union nurse and is helping in Marsh's recovery. Ultimately, Marsh returns home to Concord to face his wife and four daughters in what will be an uncertain future.
The book shows eloquently how Marsh's idealism is tested by his experience of combat and by the immensity of the Civil War. Indeed, it shows Marsh's awakening to the ambiguities of the conflict and its causes. The novel also shows well the strain the War put on familial relationships, particularly as they involve Marsh's relationship with Marmee and with Grace. The book also focuses on Marsh and his high expectations of himself, and how he responds when his actions during the conflict often do not comport with his high ideals. A great deal of the complex character of our Civil War -- and the difficulty we have even today in understanding it -- comes through well in this book.
In his prose work "Specimen Days", Walt Whitman observed that "the real Civil War will never get into the books." In spite of Whitman's warning, many Americans continue to try to understand the significance of the conflict in works of history and literature. Brooks's novel, with its portrayal of the conflict and its participants, both of the North and the South, seems to me a good start, in a work of fiction, for the reader to approach and think about the Civil War. The book is thoughtful, both as far as the broad issues of the War are concerned, and in considering the effect of the War upon a freed young woman and upon a fictional idealistic young minister from Concord and his family.
on May 23, 2006
...was my inability to reconcile the firebrand character of Marmee March drawn here with the simpering, prim, ladylike character Alcott presented. (I also always assumed that "Marmee" was a maternal name, but guess not; apparently her "well-bred" 19th century New England daughters are calling their mother by her first name.) It's inconceivable that this Marmee, who's assertive and liberated even by 21st century standards, would ever have made that deeply troubling speech to Meg in LW about how it's her own fault that her husband doesn't spend so much time with her anymore now that she's had twins, and how she should make every effort to turn her home into a cheerful and pleasant place for him, etc. It was also clear in LW that the girls had little interest in politics or current events (poor Meg can barely keep her attention from wandering back to her new bonnet), and yet Brooks presents us with a family of active abolitionists, harboring fugitives from the Underground Railroad and passionately discussing the rights of the individual, Uncle Tom's Cabin, etc.
Other reviews have commented that March himself is not the least bit interesting or heroic--he continually fouls up, acts naive and attempts to repress his wife--and there's something to those remarks as well. (Although those who condemn him as an adulterer do not seem to have read the book closely.) Still, he's meant to be a flawed character--the parts he narrates ring true enough, largely because we don't have a preconceived notion of him. But Brooks's mistake is to tamper with already-established characters, and to alter them past recognition. If this had been a straight-up civil war story, rather than a literary retelling the built on a famous work, it would be both a better book and (ironically) not a Pulitzer winner.
This is minor, but Brooks makes some b.s. claim that the March family are all vegans. How can anyone forget the famous strawberries-and-cream scene at Jo's dinner party?????? Not to mention the chicken dinner at the Christmas Eve homecoming!