Sunday, July 11, 2010
by Geraldine Brooks
If you are a Little Women devotee you will surely want to read March. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is the story of Peter March the father of the March clan. While March is an absent father in Little Women, his life story is the basis of this novel. His character is loosely based on Louisa May Alcott’s father Bronson Alcott. The first part of the novel is narrated by March. He is introduced as an itinerant peddler working though the southern states in the years before the Civil War. We meet him as a young man; see his courtship and marriage of Marmee and the birth of his children. He is an idealistic abolitionist preacher who is influenced by his friendship with Thoreau and Emerson (neighbors in New England) and his partnership with John Brown, the violent abolitionist to whom he loses his fortune. In a fit of patriotic fervor March enlists as a chaplain to accompany Union troops. His naiveté and impossibly high ideals soon run afoul of his coarse Union companions. Caught in an embarrassing situation with a black slave who he had meet earlier in his travels he is reassigned to a plantation now operated by a northern manager and manned by freed slaves or “contraband” as the free blacks are known. His assignment is to teach the freed slaves reading and writing. The crux of the novel occurs on this plantation. March’s idealism is challenged by the everyday cruelty and racism of both Northern and Southern soldiers. The harsh plight of the slaves seems unchanged when their “freedom” is achieved. A Confederate attack on the plantation lands March in a Washington DC hospital and then the first person narration switches to Marmee. Marmee recounts a different version of prior events and reacts to the knowledge she gains about her husband’s life. Her difficulty in dealing with her rage and disappointment in March rings true. The return of Marmee and March to the idyllic setting of their New England home masks the changes in both of them; he the shattered and scarred dreamer, she the newly wise wife and mother.
The dialogue throughout this novel is firmly rooted in the 19th century but seems very easy and straightforward. The depth of description of even the minor characters allows the readers to know them. The plantation manager is anything but one dimensional, while he seems a petty, cruel tyrant we gradually learn of the struggles he has in managing the plantation. The difficulties in communication that March and Marmee have seemed timeless and could easily be attributed to a 21st century couple. This is a very different Civil War novel but I think will please many readers. This type of novel is among my favorites – historical fiction that has a well told story peopled by sympathetic but not perfect characters that have depth, emotions and passions that are universal.