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(3.5)A father's commitment to his "Little Women"
on March 7, 2005
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.