Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

The story of Little Women is about Jo and her mother and three sisters. Their father is away for most of the book (although his homecoming is the climax). Ms. Brooks has written a novel about what happened to Mr. March during that year, when he was away in the Civil War.

As a chaplain, Mr. March isn't necessarily in the thick of fighting, but he also isn't able to avoid it in Virginia. He witnesses harrowing events and deaths, and he manages nevertheless to stand by his principles and ideals. That's not necessarily a good thing. A radical, a vegetarian, he's alienated most of the soldiers and officers for whom he's supposed to provide comfort. Eventually it is recommended that he apply for a transfer. He ends up at a plantation that is being run by a white Yankee, with free blacks, trying to prove paid labor can bring in cotton profits as well as slave labor (if not better). March is tasked with teaching the free blacks, with running a school. As you can imagine, the locals aren't too keen on this experiment and eventually things go horrifically wrong.

Then the book begins to match up to Little Women as Mr. March is in a hospital in D.C. and Marmee comes with Mr. Brooke to take care of him. Throughout, we've gotten flashbacks to Mr. March's young adulthood as a peddler, him meeting Marmee and their courtship, and his financial setbacks. We know he's going to make it back to Orchard House, although at times Mr. March does not think he will survive. That's always a trick--creating suspense and anticipation when the outcome is known--and Ms. Brooks does it well.

I've long been a fan of Ms. Brooks and now only have two books of hers left that I've not yet read. I find it interesting that this is the book that won the Pulitzer, as I do not think it is her strongest or most ambitious novel. But it was an impressive idea and done very well. It is deceptively simple, and as a reader you don't notice the transitions to the flashbacks and the build-up to the terror and horror of the events leading to Mr. March's injury. it's subtle and well-constructed. That said, I found Mr. March a hard character to relate to. He is strident, inflexible, and righteous. I know that's very accurate to his portrayal in Louisa May Alcott's book, and also to Bronson Alcott (whose life Ms. Brooks used as material, as it is well-known that Little Women is a lightly fictionalized version of Ms. Alcott's own family.) Accurate doesn't always give you empathetic. It felt very suited to the time and the research was obviously well done (and I found her note of apology at the end to her husband, the well-known historian Tony Horwitz who has written books about the Civil War, very funny.) The book is brief, well-written, and if you (like me) like seeing a story form a different point of view, it's an important book to read. But not my favorite.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.


Kay said...

I think I said in another comment that I discussed this book with a book group. It was a very interesting discussion. Many of us had fond memories of LITTLE WOMEN and then this. Yes.

Have you read PEOPLE OF THE BOOK? I liked that one better, actually.

Carin Siegfried said...

Oh yes, I very much liked People of the Book better! Might be her best one. I also loved Year of Wonder.