March by Geraldine Brooks

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March

Paperback, 280 pages

Published: January 31, 2006 by Penguin (1st published October 10, 2004)

Literary Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2006)

 

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March re-imagines the absent father in Little Women, who went to war and returned to his wife and daughters in a memorable Christmas scene. Although Geraldine Brooks adopted the elegant, rather formal language of the period, in a novel reflecting many of the moral values in Louisa May Alcott’s most famous classic, March is not a children’s story. It is a war story, gorgeous and eloquent but also raw and brutal.

“At the end of the novel, a year later, Mr. March returns to his family, in the delightful story-book fashion,” Brooks wrote in the afterword to her novel, “to celebrate the wonderful transformation of his girls. But what war has done to March himself is left unstated. It is in this void that I have let my imagination work.”

March takes us back to 1861. Mr. March, a character inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s father Bronson Alcott, is a non-denominational minister, Unitarian in his beliefs. He is an idealist, a man of uncompromising ideals, and an ardent abolitionist. Inspired by the charismatic preaching of John Brown, he spent his fortune trying to aid the abolitionist cause and finally enlisted as a Union army chaplain in The War Between the States.

As the story opens, he is with troops in Virginia, writing home to Marmee and his “little women” in a way that artfully cloaks the truth about what he’s experiencing.

He privately remembers the last time he was in Virginia, twenty years ago, as a young man earning his fortune through peddling. It was then that he came face to face with slavery for the first time. As March remembers that time, the author explores the evil of slavery in a way that is unflinchingly honest, yet multi-layered.

Now, two decades later, March has left his beloved family behind to serve the Union, seeing war as a necessary evil to emancipate the slaves. But the reality he sees is starkly different. Few of his comrades in the Northern army share his abolitionist convictions, and they are often just as cruel in their treatment of “negroes” as their Southern counterparts. Furthermore the violence and suffering around him strip away March’s moral certainty, layer by layer.

The truth: I was angry at myself, for not having had the courage to stand aside from the crying up of this war and say, No. Not this way. You cannot right injustice by injustice. You must not defame God by preaching that he wills young men to kill one another. For what manner of God could possibly will what I see here? There are Confederates lying in this hospital, they say; so there is union at last, a united states of pain. Did God will the mill-town lad in the next ward to be shot or run a steel blade through the bowels of the farmhand who now lies next to him? — a poor youth, maybe, who never kept a slave?

He serves as chaplain as best he can, and he is later thrust into an opportunity to teach “contraband” slaves seized by the Union army. He has a passion for teaching, and this calling creates meaning for him. But he is unable to reclaim his moral compass. And in time, though he longs to reconnect with his wife and daughters, his brutal memories and deep guilt create a wall that seems impenetrable.

Geraldine Brooks did a tremendous amount of research on Bronson Alcott, an odd and fascinating historical figure, to help her create Mr. March, an man who is eloquent and wise, yet naive and often ineffectual. This is a beautiful book, one in which I savored the author’s eloquence, vivid imagery, and richly imagined, complex characters. At the same time, while it offers glimmers of hope, it is painful and disturbing.

Geraldine Brooks has effectively recreated the time and places in which it is set, ranging from March’s native New England, which we visit through generous flashbacks, to the war-torn South. We meet actual historical figures, including John Brown, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We also see the unfinished United States capital in Washington, D.C., drenched in mud and overrun by wartime mercenaries of various types — I found these scenes particularly vivid. I also loved March’s mindful attention to the natural world, inspired by Thoreau, that nourishes vivid, gorgeous imagery in this novel.

This is an unforgettable book about love, suffering, and the fate of idealists in the real world. I found it hard to put down, and I will find it even more difficult to forget.

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