In 1864, after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he marched his sixty thousand troops east through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces and lived off the land, pillaging the Southern plantations, taking cattle and crops for their own, demolishing cities, and accumulating a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the uprooted, the dispossessed, and the triumphant.
The March is, quite simply, exactly what historical fiction should be. It brings alive a specific time and place, creates characters that are complex and reflective of their period, and brings to the reader the sights, smells and sounds of that period.
Doctorow tells the story of Sherman’s March to the Sea and the end of the American Civil War through numerous characters – white, black, free, slave, army, civilian, rich and poor. The sheer number of characters and stories could be overwhelming but they are connected by the March itself, a shared experience, and really the central character of the book. Through a kaleidoscope of images and stories, Doctorow pieces together a portrait of war, death, brutality, kindness, hope and redemption.
One of my favorite parts was the brief glimpse we are given of President Lincoln very near the end of the war. Wrede, a doctor observes: "His affliction might, after all, be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate. Wrede, who had attended every kind of battle death, could not recall having ever before felt this sad for another human being.”
This book sucked me in, both as a very good, well-told story, and as a fictionalized account of a part of American history I am not deeply familiar with. My one complaint would be that a map of Sherman’s route through Georgia and the Carolinas would have been helpful, as would some indication – perhaps in an afterword – of what characters were real or based on historical figures and which were purely fictionalized (some are obvious, but I now have a lot of Googling to do).
Politics aside, Doctorow puts a human face on this war which is refreshing. There are badies on both sides and it’s a good idea not to get too attached to any one character. Doctorow is as brutal with them as the war was to all. It is a moving and honest portrayal of the times and if you have a mild to moderate interest in the Civil War I would suggest you find a copy.
But don’t stop there. Earlier this year I read Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker. This was released some years ago, but is definitely one not to miss. Set in New York City, it is a fictional account of the riots (the worst in US history) caused by the establishment of the draft to man troops fighting the South. It caused a rebellion amongst the poor and working class simply because $300 you could buy your name out of the draft. See … they were even doing it back then!
Personally, I had never read any fiction or otherwise on this topic and I found it completely enthralling. The characters are perfectly believable and the events well researched and from what I could discover, true to historical fact. I devoured this book in record time and found not only was it utterly enjoyable, but I actually learnt something new in American history. As a Canadian I was exposed to more than enough American history at school, but someone left this little morsel off our plate (or maybe I wasn’t listening that day). Either way, this is a great book for modern history buffs, and I recommend it for one of those compelling reads we are always looking out for.
Doctorow's treatment of Sherman, which is hostile, depends heavily on Sherman's high-strung temperament, his restless activity and at times lapses from the historical record. In the process, Doctorow makes some minor historical errors--placing Sherman's breakdown after First Bull Run when in reality it happened months later in St. Louis. The description of the breakdown itself is startling, since I know of no historical record that shows that Sherman had such an episode during or after Bull Run, which Doctorow implies.
Another, far more startling error is quoting Sherman as saying he didn't understand why the defence of Atlanta had been given to 'that stupid Frenchman Beauregard". He might indeed wonder, since to anyone else's knowledge, it was John Bell Hood who lost Atlanta. How did an editor let that slip by? The story is in no way enhanced by it. Another perfectly legitimate literary device is a fictional account of an assassination attempt on Sherman after the Battle of Bentonville. What is bothersome about this, however, is that there is no afterward, as is usual in the case of fiction placed in a historical context, explaining the liberties taken with the facts. This is a major and unwelcome departure from normal custom.
That said, the book is brilliant, especially at the end, particularly at the Battle of Bentonville. Doctorow evokes the chaos of battle, the horror of war. Through the character of Dr. Wrede Sartorius, Doctorow shows the terrible cost and human suffering of the most wasteful of human endeavors, war.
There is a section where Pryce, the English journalist, is looking down from a crotch in a tree at hand-to-hand combat, describing; "This was not war as adventure nor war for a solemn cause, it was war at its purest, a mindless mass rage severed from any cause, ideal or moral principle". (p. 298) The brilliance of the book is in showing how people manage to survive and go on with their lives in the middle of and despite the "mindless mass rage". Despite the really serious--and irresponsible--lapses noted above, the book is an outstanding work.
There are some excellent passages and writing about the march itself as living organism that has to feed and tamed in order to achieve it’s ultimate goal. Also, the dialogue between characters is spot on, making the character to character interaction seem natural and fluid. Match that with an obvious desire to present the history accurately and you’ve got the raw materials for a great novel. However, perhaps that book’s greatest short coming was intended to be its greatest strength; the vast array of characters.
Although I can see why Doctorow would want to include such a wide array of perspectives of such a grand event, individually the characters are not given an enough space to be fully developed and flourish. I think the incomplete realizations and disjointed/abortive storylines are meant to emphasize the chaos of war; if so, it didn’t work for me. Another issue I had with the book is that sometimes the characters didn’t seem like characters at all instead they are used to represent larger historical forces that are not necessarily at work in the micro-stories that are the focus of the narrative. It seems like Doctorow is trying to pull all these individual stories together in order to lecture to the reader about the injustices of the time. It seems to me that the best historical fiction allows the reads complete entry into another time and place with all the prejudices and limitations of that experience. Perhaps if the a few of the characters were given more space, more depth, and more nuance there wouldn’t be this issue of distance between the reader and the events.
In the end, I’m not sorry to have spent time reading this novel, there is plenty of good writing in the various individual stories to recommend it, but falls a bit short of my expectations.
The only compelling thing that I really found here was the doctor. The character seemed to know more than he could possibly know - not in a bad storytelling way, but in an uncanny metaphysical way. I wish that there had been more of the doctor, but at the same time, I think that if the character had been more drawn out, whatever it is that makes him uncanny and compelling would likely be lost.
That being said, it was certainly an enjoyable read. A only halfway decent Doctorow novel is still a very good book.
Better Civil War fiction is available: Red Badge of Courage, Ambrose Bierce, Lincoln by Gore Vidal.
The Union march through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina utilized one of the oldest military tactics - burn civilian houses, steal their food, rape their women and leave them with nothing. Demoralize the enemy by getting them wear it hurts the most - at home.
This novel follows several characters whose lives were turned upside down by Sherman's "March to the Sea" (and up the coast). From freed slaves to Southern belles to crazed Rebel soldiers to the high Army brass, this novel shows how the pain and suffering of war is not only confined to those in actual battle. War is also hell for the wives, mothers and children on the homefront, for the journalists trying to get the story, for the politicians whose policies impact the very reason for fighting. It's simply hell for all.
If you enjoy Civil War fiction, Doctorow's book is a smart, fast and entertaining read.
I should have known that I could trust Doctorow to create fully-realized characters on both sides of this terrible conflict .
This is a beautifully written, important book for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the impact this event in American history.
Fortunately in this novel, Sherman is included in the cast, however other famous notables like Lincoln and Grant only make cameo appearances. Other characters include a naturalized German Union surgeon, a couple of requisite Southern Belles, a Rebel criminal duo posing as Union soldiers more for survival than espionage, and a mulatto daughter of a plantation owner. Perhaps typecast and typical, there are superior Civil War historical fiction accounts, although perhaps none so dedicated to painting Sherman and his effort so singularly.