by Geraldine Brooks
In 1861, the Civil War breaks out and Mr. March (of Little Women fame), joins the army as a chaplain; Geraldine Brooks takes the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s novel and gives him his own story. Mr. March tells his story through a series of flashbacks, each preceded by a letter to his wife, Marmee, and four girls back in Concord. March is an interesting man: an abolitionist, a vegetarian, a preacher (although of Unitarian leanings), a friend of Emerson and Thoreau. He joins the army impulsively at the age of 39 because of his belief that slavery is wrong and also because he wants his wife to be proud of him. In his letters, Captain March chooses not to tell of his actual experiences, but he writes of his love for his wife and daughters and the “good” parts of the war. Through the narrator, however, the reader sees the realities of war as well as March’s previous experiences in the South. As a teenaged peddler, he met Grace, an educated slave, and their paths cross twice again as Captain March again journeys through the South as part of the Union forces. Captain March helps wounded soldiers, acts as a teacher for recently freed slaves, and finally ends up in a Washington, DC hospital with recurring fever, where Grace, the woman from his past, meets Marmee, his wife and mother of his children. March learns the true cost of war and his convalescence requires him to face the realities of his relationship with Marmee and what kind of man he truly is.
- Brooks is a master at weaving history and fiction. She bases much of this novel on fact, using Bronson Alcott’s (Louisa’s father) journals and other primary sources to create Mr. March. In reality, the Alcotts were friends with the Emersons and Thoreaus. He did hold transcendentalist views like theirs and other specific events in the novel are historical fact. I have read a couple of Brooks’ other books (People of the Book and Caleb’s Crossing), and she is very talented at telling stories that fit into what we know about actual events.
- Brooks is also a master of voice. She truly takes on the persona of her narrator. This is more evident by looking at her other novels, but a section of March is narrated by Marmee. Her voice is distinctive from the voice of her husband; she has an edge to her words that he does not and she is much more realistic than he.
- Brooks’ descriptive writing amazes me. Some of my favorite quotes:
- “The air was so dense it seemed to require a huge effort even to inhale it. It lay thick in the lungs and seemed to give no refreshment.” (p. 163) If you have spent any time south of the Mason-Dixon line, you understand exactly what Brooks describes here; if you’ve never experienced 95% humidity, the imagery explains it perfectly!
- “I found that if I did not talk with a high degree of animation and almost theatrical amount of gesture and expression, I could not hold their attention.” (p. 144). As a teacher, I just giggled when I read this line. How many times have I sat in professional development about student engagement? Evidently this is not a new problem.
What Doesn’t Work:
- Mr. March’s character tends to be overly dramatic. Brooks paints him as extremely idealistic, but he becomes annoyingly so. Part of this does have to do with the fact that he is a fictional character, however, so I can let some of it slide.
- Furthermore, many of the events in the novel are unrealistic, but again, since it’s a fictional work based on another fictional work, that’s understandable. I suppose that many Civil War novels have similarly romanticized views (Gone with the Wind, anyone?), so it fits with that “canon” of work.
I enjoyed the premise of March; using Little Women as a starting point is genius. It has been quite a while since I’ve read Little Women, and this view makes me want to reread it. I would be curious to know how Alcott would respond to Brooks’ view of Mr. March and also how he compares with Alcott’s father.
Brooks’ novels (having now read three) give unique insights into what could have happened during events for which we have historical evidence. Brooks brings history to a personal level by combining truth and fiction. The notes at the end describe the factual pieces and also the ones with which the author took liberties. Since this novel is based on another novel that in turn is based on history (and slightly autobiographical), keeping all the facts in order and making the storyline fit with both Alcott’s work and actual events is quite a feat.
Fans of Little Women would appreciate another view, as would readers who gravitate to historical fiction, and specifically those who like the Civil War era.
Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:
My Rating: B
- Interesting premise, memorable characters, compelling storyline
- Fairly easy read, but you might need to keep a dictionary handy.
Clean Factor: A
Book Clubbishness: A
- This was the April pick for my book club. It provided a fair amount of discussion.
- We read Brooks’ People of the Book last month, which most people preferred.