March by Geraldine Brooks

Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women was one of my favourite novels growing up.  I wanted to be a writer, just like Jo, and since I didn’t have sisters myself, I loved reading about their camaraderie and girlish fun.  So when I saw Geraldine Brooks’ novel March, about the girls’ father, I was intrigued.  Curious about what a modern writer would have to say about a minor character in a classic novel, I borrowed the book from my mother-in-law.

The novel opens with one of March’s letters to his wife—a letter that whitewashes the reality of war to protect his family. The letter deteriorates into his memories of what really happened during a recent battle, which Brooks paints with the grim realism that can only come from heavy research.

Because March is the chaplain, he was not actively engaged in the fighting, but deals more with the aftermath, trying to help the wounded and dying soldiers. Yet because of his own struggles and his unconventional beliefs, March finds it hard to offer comfort and to earn the soldiers’ respect.

When the army moves into an abandoned plantation home, the novel flashes back to the first time March saw this home, as a young peddler twenty years earlier. More flashbacks later in the novel describe how March and Marmee meet, fall in love, and marry, and elaborate on their rise and fall in fortune. Brooks also paints both of them as being adamant anti-slavery opponents.

March eventually requests a transfer from the army to a plantation, where he ministers to and teaches the “free” blacks trying to work for wages. For me, his failure in the army didn’t seem to agree with the father portrayed in Little Women, who had such a strong influence on his daughters even in his absence. I would have expected him, in the same way he guides and understands his daughters, to be able to connect with the soldiers in his care.

On the plantation, March clashes with the plantation manager over the blacks’ rights, and slowly earns a place on the plantation. He also has his first bout with the fever that will take him out of the war. As he recovers, the plantation faces the threat of enemy bandits, who don’t want to see cotton grown for the profit of the North or slaves being taught what it means to be free. As the bandits attack, March’s values and beliefs—and his health—are tested to the limit.

The novel then goes briefly to Marmee’s viewpoint, as she answers the telegram and rushes to Washington to be with her ailing husband. We see her reactions to events March had already described—and how her memories and feelings about those events are vastly different than his. To bring her husband home, she must fight not only the fever that ravages his body, but also the memories and sense of failure that ravages his mind.

Geraldine Brooks paints a grimly realistic picture of the horrors of the American Civil War. Her details and descriptions of places and events are well-written and real. She shows the varying views of those involved in the war, from the slaves to the masters to the soldiers fighting for shallow reasons. An afterword to the novel explains some of the choices she made, including basing much of March’s character on Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott.

While March intrigued me enough that I picked it up to read, I found myself liking it less the more I read. At first, I thought this was because the March that Brooks paints didn’t fit my image of Alcott’s March—much as I dislike movies based on books that stray too far from the book. However, further reflection made me realize that March doesn’t change throughout the course of the novel. The ending was decidedly unsatisfactory, because March is still waffling about his duty, his role in the war, and his beliefs. He is one of few literary figures that I would call cowardly. And that is not a good thing to say about the novel’s protagonist.

For an interview with Geraldine Brooks about March and a reader’s guide, see her website.

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One Response

  1. heidiwriter September 9, 2008

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