Every decade seems to produce a novel that captures the public's imagination with a story that sweeps readers up and takes them on a thrilling, unforgettable ride. Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running is this decade's novel. By all accounts, especially his own, Smithson "Smithy" Ide is a loser. An overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk, Smithy's life becomes completely unhinged when he loses his parents and long-lost sister within the span of one week. Rolling down the driveway of his parents' house in Rhode Island on his old Raleigh bicycle to escape his grief, the emotionally bereft Smithy embarks on an epic, hilarious, luminous, and extraordinary journey of discovery and redemption.
The author draws on her own experience as a war correspondent to vividly describe both battle scenes and conditions in a realistic way. Through the eyes of Peter March, we are able to picture the small events and narrow views of one man’s war experiences. As a chaplain he is mostly dealing with the wounded , the sick and the dead. Being a man of such strong anti-slavery convictions and being totally against violence, he spends a lot of his time wrestling with the morality of war and his own guilt. Not be able to accept even the most casual racism that was prevalent even on the Yankee side, he soon found himself transferred from the regular army to a captured Plantation to deal with the education of ex-slaves.
I was a little taken aback with Brooks view of Marmee, but as I read deeper into the book, her interpretation grew on me and seemed right. I haven’t read Little Women in years, but I now realize, that the Marmee depicted in that book is too good, too saintly to be real. This author saw beneath the veneer and gave the women flesh and blood.
In the end I loved this story of a naïve dreamer going to war and having to face his own shortcomings, and learning the lesson of what is important in life. March by Geraldine Brooks deserves it’s Pulitzer Prize, and is a book I am proud to have share the shelf with the original Louisa May Alcott novels about this family.
"The point is the effort. That you, believing what you believed -- what you sincerely believed, including the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' -- acted upon it. To believe, to act, and to have events confound you--I grant you, that is hard to bear. But to believe, and not to act ... That is what would have been reprehensible." (p. 258)
Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women, describes a year in the life of a mother and her daughters, while her husband is away serving in the Union Army. The father is absent for most of the book. In March, Geraldine Brooks brings the father's character to life and tells the story of that year from his point of view. Mr. March is a clergyman, so while he does not experience combat directly, he ministers to the wounded and dying. Initially, after a harrowing battle scene, he finds himself on a plantation that he had first encountered as a young itinerant peddler. Old relationships are rekindled, and he is reassigned to another regiment, and transported to a Southern estate under Union occupation. The slaves on this estate were under Union protection, and Mr. March was to provide them with the basics of an education. The novel's pace picks up at this point, and becomes considerably more violent as the horrors of war are revealed. March eventually lands in hospital, is visited by his wife Marmee, and returns home for Christmas just as he does in Little Women. In March we gain much more intimate knowledge of how the war scarred him, both physically and mentally, and how it affected his relationship with Marmee.
I was hooked on this story from page 1. Scenes from the American Civil War were interspersed with narrative describing how Mr. March came to be married to Marmee, their participation in the Underground Railroad, and his motivation for joining the Union army. He wrote letters from the front but, reluctant to burden his family with his daily horrors, he masked the truth. Marmee, on the other hand. felt lonely and resentful: "I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces." (p. 211) Their reunion was touched with both sadness and hope.
In letting her imagination run around the edges of Little Women, Brooks has written a memorable novel. Highly recommended.
Instead of following the March girl's lives as they wait for their father's return from the Civil War, the story is told from the point of view of Robert March as he tries to minister to the troops and help emancipate and educate slaves. The story explores the brutality of war, the racism of the North in its approach to freeing blacks, and the impact the war has on March's physical and mental state. In the same way that Alcott based the Little Women on her real-life sisters, Brooks based Robert March on Alcott's father, who was a radical liberal. Mr. Alcott was firmly for Emancipation and was a vegetarian, who founded a Utopian commune that failed, because its inhabitants refused to kill the infestation of worms invading its apple crops.
Brooks is a wonderful writer. The style is clear and vivid in its portrayal of the Civil War South. And though the story is far more brutal, bloody, and graphic than the children's book it's based on, Brooks managed to capture the thread of that moralizing tone, which was just under the surface of every description, so that the novel felt as though it fit neatly within the fictional realm of Little Women.
One of the things that fascinated me about the novel and kept me interested was the ways in which Robert March lied in his letters home to his wife and his Little Women. It's understandable that he would not want to worry them with the true turmoils of war and it sets up and interesting duality between his home life and the life he now lives on the battlefield.
I don't know how to talk about this book without talking about bits from the ending, so WARNING: spoilers ahead.
Spoiler 1 — At the end of the novel, when March is on his sickbed and nearing death, the POV switches to his wife and we see how Robert misunderstood her feeling and how she misunderstood his. It's a wonderful moment (in literature, but hard on the characters) that shows just how easy it is to mistake people and how you can love and know someone for years and not really understand them.
Spoiler 2 — Throughout the story, I was a bit annoyed by Robert March and his wife, both of whom were avidly for Emancipation to the point of being almost too noble, too good, coming across as great white heroes of the Civil War. This was especially evident in the way March feels about one slave he meets named Grace, who has been educated and who he makes into a symbol for what the "Negro" can become.
At the end of the story, when March is wracked with guilt and insists on finding someway to make himself useful to Grace, she turns him down. She tells him that she doesn't need him, that the blacks need to be able to take care of themselves, and that the best thing he can do is to go home and preach emancipation and equality to other white people.
I can't even tell you how relieved I was to see this scene presented and it was that moment that really brought me from liking this novel to loving it.
Brooks has obviously done her research here: the book comes alive with real-life characters, including Brown, Emerson, and Thoreau, and the pictures she draws of the nation at war, both on the field and at home, are powerful. The March parents lose some of their ever-optimistic facade--but that's perhaps a good thing. Here, they become real people, caught up, as so many Americans were, in the fury of the civil war and its effects on the individual, the family, and the nation.
The writing here is as fine as it was in Brooks's earlier novel, Year of Wonders (which remains my favorite). Strongly recommended.
Brooks gives us a man who is a selfish vegetarian, whose stand on principles often cost people's lives, who is definitely NOT the daddy that appears in Little Women. We are given gruesome battle scenes, murders, torture, and all the inhumanity man can inflict upon his fellow human beings. We also see "Marmee", (was that really her name?) when she comes to DC to minister to her husband in an Army hospital (as portrayed in Alcott's original story), but it is really the character of the slave Grace Clement who is the strong woman in the story. The book includes Brooks' notes on other sources she used to concoct the story, from medical texts to autobiographies.
It's a well-written story, perhaps even deserving the Pulitzer Prize it won (I'm not qualified as a literature critic to make that call), but I fail to see what it really has to do with Little Women, and in the end, I almost feel that it demeans Louise May Alcott's work by trying to hang this story on hers. This March person, by Brooks' own admission, has only his radical views in common with Bronson Alcott, for instance Alcott was not a clergyman, did not go south during the War, and was not at any of the battle depicted in the book. Yes it was fiction, yes it departed from known facts, but I'd have preferred a totally fictional story that could have stood on its own.
On the plus side, Brooks did a fine job of even handedly presenting the squalor,horror and sadness of the Civil War and a good job of underlining the obliviousness of the typical19th Century man to what was close the heart of the women in his life. Still, if you want to read Brooks, try "Year of Wonders." It's simply a better book.
I really like how Brooks puts a book together, slowly building on the storyline and the characters and allowing the reader to just take it all in with no confusion until he/she is there, in the moment of the story and with the characters.
The story of March is that he was a minister who, when going to see the young men from the township off to war, suddenly told them they would not be going alone---that he would be going with them. That group didn't have need of a chaplain, but they put him with another group who did. So Mr. March went to war. He was connected with John Brown, his family was active in the underground railroad, he was on friendly terms with Emerson, Thoreau and others like them.
He writes letters home trying to tell his family of some of the not so gruesome details of his life with the army. He spends much of his time on a cotton plantation helping to establish schools for the colored children and their parents. The author does a good job describing what life was like for the blacks and whites alike during the terrible days of the Civil War.
The plantation is taken over and the whites and blacks alike are taken, tortured, and some are killed. Only one got away and she came back to get Mr. March and help him. She got him to a hospital and Mrs March was sent for as he was doing very poorly and at this point, as in Little Women, Brooks saves the day and brings Marmee to the hospital where she and her husband are reunited. I was quite amazed to see that in this book Mrs. March is portrayed as quite a little spitfire.
According to Brooks, Alcott modeled the March girls after herself and her sisters. Journals, letters, and biographies of Alcotts's father, Bronson, were used for inspiration in the writing of this novel. Bronson Alcott was a radical even for those times and "recorded his life in sixty one journals and his letters fill thirty seven manuscript volumes in the Harvard College Library. He is the subject of an 1893 two volume memoir by Franklin B Sanborn and William T Harris, and a 1937 biography by Odell Shepard. Warm references to Bronson Alcott, often as mentor and inspiration, appear frequently in the letters and journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who were among his closest friends."
I did like this book and look forward to reading more by this author. I recommend it for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, books on the Civil War (though it is fiction) or just wants a good read. There is not a lot of depth here, but it is a good book and I enjoyed it. However, I read in one of the reviews here that it was a Pulitzer Prize winner and though I enjoyed it, I cannot see it being of that quality work.
When Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women she based the characters on her own mother and sisters. In writing March, Geraldine Brooks uses the absent father from Little Women as her main character, and bases him on Louisa's real father Bronson Alcott. Alcott was a famous 19th century radical vegetarian utopian. He impoverished his family by using his money to support various causes. Brooks read many of Alcott's diaries and letters, and even used his own words in a letter her character writes to his wife. She, and Louisa May, have March going off to the Civil War even though he was 40 – a little too old to be with the young fighting men. Alcott was in his sixties during the Civil War, so he did not fight, but there was no better situation in which to show the challenge to idealism than war. The Civil War is viewed by most people (except some Southerners) as a justifiable war, a war for a humanitarian purpose, but Brooks shows that war, any war challenges the ideals of people involved, at least it challenges the ideals of people who have them. Some people in the book are shown to have no ideals, so no conflict. If they want to have a thing or kill a person, they go for it and crush anyone in their way. Some other people are found to have fine ideals for themselves and those they think of as their peers but no problem seeing other people as merely animate property. The moral, idealistic people in the book are the ones challenged on all levels even on levels they weren't aware of. When speaking of how she works to keep her family alive, Marmee (March's wife) says, “I had tried to bear the small insults and indignities of poverty, even to embrace, as he did, the virtues of a simple life. But where he might retire to his study and be wafted off on some contemplation of the Oversoul, it was I who felt harassed at every hour by our indebtedness and demeaned by begging credit here and there; I who had to go hungry so that he and the girls might eat. Oh, he gardened to put food on our table, and chopped wood for others when the larder was truly bare. And what praise he won for it: 'Orpheus at the plow,' Mr. Emerson hailed him. (No one thought to attach such a poetic label to me, though I might wear myself to a raveling with the hundred little shifts necessary to sustain us all.)”
Marmee ( which I always thought was some stupid way of saying Mommie but find is really the nickname for Margaret Marie) and March are shown to be very passionate people who share a philosophy of social justice and even renovate their homes to become a stop on the Underground Railway. Their friends are (Ralph) Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. They meet and become entangled with John Brown. Marmee has an explosive temper. There's a character modeled after Harriet Ann Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. There are scenes of medical carnage and neglect from Louisa Alcott's Hospital Sketches, there are battle scenes from the viewpoint of the grunts. A large part of the book is set on a leased farm in the South run by an ignorant Northerner where “contrabands”, slaves who escape or are freed by the war, are supposed to be paid for their work for the first time in their lives. A portion is set in Washington DC where stench filled muddy streets and crowded boarding houses are contrasted with elegant homes. In March practicality is contrasted with realism, ideals are contrasted with immorality, life is shown to be almost unbearably complex. This book and its imperfect characters filled my mind, and may even enable me to read Little Women without cringing.
This is the spin-off story of Robert March, the father of the four girls in the 1864 classic Little Women. In that book we see Mr March only as a shadow figure; we know he's a chaplain in the Civil War and eventually lies ill in a hospital. Not many details are given.
In this Pulitzer Prize winning imagining of his life, Geraldine Brooks has created his backstory as well as given a fresh look at events surrounding the Civil War.
In many ways Ms Brooks patterned Robert March's life after that of Louisa May Alcott's own father, Bronson Alcott.
But March is also true to Alcott's vision of the husband and father in Little Women as Brooks depicts a philosopher more comfortable with the thoughts of his Transcendentalist friends than with deeds. Guided by his hopeful visions, March often jumps impulsively into events such as supporting John Brown's idealistic agrarian venture or impetuously joining the Union Army.
As in Little Women, the women in the book are the strong characters, the heroes who pick up the pieces.
Geraldine Brooks is married to a Civil War historian and did large amount of research on this era, giving what I felt was a fresh look at lesser known history. As always, I enjoy Geraldine Brooks' writing and ability to tell a tale. While some in my book club criticized the story as too far-fetched and coincidental, I give it a solid four stars.
Reverend March is always the most obscure of the family in this series, as he is away at war when the book opens. So Geraldine Brooks has lots of room to imagine a new story for him. She opens the book with March in the middle of battle in the Civil War.
Now naturally, a book mostly about the Civil War would not exactly be cheerful. But it wouldn't necessarily be depressing and feel like a chore to read. That's exactly how I felt reading this book. I know lots of people have said good things about it. But I didn't like it at all. I didn't like the central character all that much. I did feel that he was a moral man, trying to stand up for what he believes in a very complicated situation. But I didn't like him. And I was unhappy with the interpretation Brooks gives to the whole March household.
I'm not sure if I'll read any more by this author, but it sure wasn't what I expected and I'm glad to be done with it.
Brooks has done her usual excellent research, and so gives us an accurate but fresh picture of various aspects of the Civil War period. She bases her portrait of March largely on Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, and fills in the picture with considerable investigation of the horrific non-battlefield aspects of the war in the south, as well as life in the middle-ground of Washington, DC, and the familiar New England world of Alcott/March’s home, peopled by real historical figures that he knew: Thoreau, Emerson, and John Brown. A fascinating read.
I have mixed feelings about this book. The writing was lovely and the research detailed, so I can see why it won a Pulitzer. I didn't entirely agree with the way the author reinterpreted the characters of Little Women, though I enjoyed the differing point of view and forcing myself to think of the characters in a new light. And though I can hardly fault the book for this, the harsh aspects of war and the effect it had on March's psyche left me feeling rather depressed; though the story is not devoid of hope, it is much sadder than I tend to like.
The real strength of the book lies in uncovering the miscommunications that can occur with those that we love the most. I wish that less of that narrative was spent setting up that story.
Still I enjoyed Brooks' prose and am interested in reading other works by her.
The novel is told primarily through the voice of Mr. March, sometimes through his letters home to his wife and daughters, sometimes through flashbacks. But the most powerful sections of the story are the portrayals of violence and loss.
The echoes of Mr. March's experiences continue to resonate beyond the battlefield, infiltrating his marriage and idealistic view of the world. With gripping descriptions, Brooks creates a compelling story which is hard to put down. This Pulitzer prize winning novel leaves the reader with questions such as: How do the realities of war and loss unhinge a man's ideals? And can we ever be the same after such a life changing experience?
The narrative tension and fine story development of March sticks with the reader long after the final page has been turned.
With this review, I am going to go Clint Eastwood on you.
Brooks' writing is beautiful. Her way with words, sentence structure and vocabulary is stunning. The flow of the story, details in the action, insight into the characters ... it is all very satisfying. Here are two quotes I loved:
"A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what the war has broken apart."
"How easy it was to give out morsels of wise counsel, and yet how hard to act on them."
This, in my mind, is not great story-telling. The premise of giving us a look at a character on the periphery of one of history's best-loved books is brilliant. Since the characters in Alcott's "Little Women" are patterned on real people, it makes sense that Brooks would use the Alcott patriarch as a guide. However, he was so irritating that I could not help but be disappointed. I will get to that in a moment.
I would like to talk about Grace. I appreciate that Grace was taught to read, but I hardly think Brooks' license to present this house slave as regal and educated was realistic. And not just educated by her mistress; Grace sounded matriculated! I am sure she could have had some presence, but to say to Mrs. March, "He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward," almost made the laugh out loud. It was not in the least credible.
When an author loses credibility in one area, and to this extent, it starts to unravel in other places.
If Brooks' goal was to have her reader come to despise Mr. March, she was 100% successful with me. A yellow-bellied, loquacious, pretentious, selfish milquetoast is how I saw him. I became so disgusted with his whining about not doing anything important that I almost wished the fever would take him. He went to war on an impulse, the men with whom he served hated him, and he fled almost every time he had the chance. He was so high on his self-righteous horse that he couldn't see what a hindrance he was to almost everything. The fact that he was able to secure supplies for the "contraband" Negros on the plantation was of little saving grace. Especially when he was instrumental in getting most of them later killed.
His family was destitute because of him, his wife's heart was broken because of him, Beth probably inherited her weak constitution from him, and on and on.
This is the second Pulitzer Prize winning book that I have read and disliked (see my review of Jennifer Egan's The Goon Squad). As a matter of fact, the more I ruminate over March, the more apt I am to change my review to 2 looks. Yes, I think I will.
However, I will read others by Geraldine Brooks. Her "People of the Book" alone is reason to read more. And while I can't recommend "March", I highly recommend you read her other titles.