Saturday, April 9, 2011

March, a book review

My family has been immersed in the Civil War lately. Damian is about to go on a school trip to Gettysburg, so he's been reading The Killer Angels, and we've all been watching the Ken Burns PBS series on the war. Then a couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of Geraldine Brooks' Pulitzer prize-winning novel March, which recounts the war experiences of Mr. March, the fictional father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.

It's a wonderful novel, suffused with the innocent, stuffy, self-righteous and self-doubting conscience of Mr. March. March writes poetic, judicious letters home to shield his family from the confusion and horror the war brings him. At the same time his narration moves between the present and past, as he recalls not only his first shaming realization of slavery's true nature but also courtship, wealth, and the slide into idealistic poverty. While March believes that the war serves a noble cause, he finds very little nobility in the mud and ordure, lust and vengeance that surround him. Sometimes he seems a man too caught up in idealism to see the people nearest him as they reaaly are.

Then there's Marmee, the saintly mother of Little Women. (Brooks quotes her mother telling her, when at the age of ten Brooks read Alcott's classic for the first time, "Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee.") Brooks's Marmee is a passionate woman with a temper worse than Jo's. She loves her husband, but the two of them, trying to live up to each other's ideals, often misunderstand each other. Forever the dutiful wife, Marmee is nevertheless furious with her husband for going to war, for becoming ill, and for hiding the truth of his inner life.

Perhaps most compelling of all is the character of Grace. Beautiful and cultured, Grace is a slave, companion to the plantation mistress when March first meets her. During the war she becomes a nurse in the Washington hospital where March lies delirious from "bilious fever and pneumonia" after war and vengeful Confederates have laid waste his dreams. Grace has the dignity and courage of someone who has always faced reality in a way March has been unable to do.

In a way, this book reads as the coming-of-age story of a forty-year-old man. March is a book about war, ideals, marriage, and our failure to communicate with those we most love. Closely observed, psychologically astute, and written with simple elegance, this is a very fine book. I recommend it.

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