Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"March" by Geraldine Brooks

I finally settled on reading this one next, partly because I had been so looking forward to it ever since hearing about it, and partly because I thought my friend Joyce (who has loaned me 2 other Brooks books) might enjoy reading it after me.

For those of you who have not had the good fortune to hear about this book before, it is about the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (who, if you recall, had the surname March). The story follows Mr. March during his time away from his little women during the Civil War.

The first chapter kind of threw me off a bit. As I've said before, I generally prefer not to read books (or watch movies) about war. I don't like to read about the horrors of combat, and hearing about strategy tends to bore me. I had sort of expected this book to have a tone more similar to "Little Women," with its naive hopefulness, but "March" starts off with a vivid description of Mr. March's regiment (of which he is chaplain) retreating before the enemy, and I was beginning to dread reading the rest.

Until I came to the last two sentences of Chapter One. They may not hold the same magic for you as they did for me, but when I read, "Whatever the case, I was halfway up the wide stone steps before I recognized the house. I had been there before," I perked up and thought, Aha! Perhaps I'll enjoy this book after all.

If you read this book you must also read the afterword. I had initially struggled with the idea of labeling this post as "historical fiction," since this is a book about a fictional character from another work of fiction, but after reading the book and realizing its treatment of subjects such as the Civil War, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, I felt pretty comfortable calling it historical fiction. And after reading the afterword, all remaining doubts were dispelled. I was amazed to find the amount of research used in the writing of this book far more extensive than I had theorized. In fact, the character of Mr. March in this novel was heavily modeled after Louisa May Alcott's own father, Bronson Alcott, just as Little Women was modeled after Alcott's own family. Some of the aspects of March's character that I found most questionable came directly from Bronson Alcott's life: the extremity of his vegan commitment, to the extent that he considered a cow's milk to rightfully belong to its calf; his friendship with both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, which I found a little far-fetched until I read the afterword; and his staunch abolitionist stance and involvement with the Underground Railroad, which (according to my memory) was not even touched upon in Little Women.

I was so glad that this book did not cover the death of Beth March, although it does refer to her frighteningly serious illness with scarlet fever. There was too much awful sadness in this book already. I don't know if I could have handled watching Mr. March deal with the loss of his beloved Mouse during the slow regeneration of his body and spirit.

One minor consideration that I disagree with: I don't think that Mrs. March would have gone by the name of Marmee since her childhood. I always thought that "Marmee" was a variation on "Mommy" and was devised by her daughters. (Of course, it has been many years since I have read Little Women, so it's entirely possible that was written into the story by Louisa May Alcott and I have simply forgotten that fact).

All in all, this book contains more war, cruelty, and horror than I prefer, but (as I have come to expect of Brooks) it is extremely well written and probably an even better read than People of the Book. I must say I have even higher expectations for Year of Wonders now, and I hope I'm not disappointed.

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