Sunday, September 4, 2011

REVIEW: March by Geraldine Brooks

The beloved classic Little Women tells the story of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.  Throughout that wonderful novel, their father Mr. March is absent, off serving as a Chaplain in the Civil War.  We never really get to know him or really anything about him at all in Little Women except through the occasional letters he sends home.  With March, Geraldine Brooks seeks to remedy that by telling the story of Mr. March. 

In the beginning of the novel we meet Mr. March as he has just come from battle.  Having just watched a soldier under his care drown as he tried to help him escape, March writes a letter home to his family assuring them all is well-something he tries to do frequently. His reality and the image he conveys to his family in his letters are vastly different as he tries to shelter them from the hardships he is experiencing as much as possible.  Making his way to a nearby house serving as a hospital, he realizes he had been there several years before in his youth.  The book flashes back to the young idealistic Mr. March and we travel with him as he makes his fortune as a Yankee peddler.  The book continues on to tell the story of his meeting and falling in love with Marmee, the birth of their four girls, the loss of their fortune while aiding the cause of John Brown and their lives as abolitionists working with the underground railroad.  When the local regiment is called up for the war, Mr. March-now well past enlistment age-decides to go with them and we see the trials he faces during war as well.

I am honestly not quite sure how I feel about this book because there are elements that I liked quite a bit and others I didn't care for at all.  Having loved Little Women, I have been trying to figure out since I closed this book if I am ok with the route Brooks took with these beloved characters or if the differences of character impeded my enjoyment of this novel. I am leaning towards yes, in certain respects it did.  First the character of Mr. March-as I said before not a lot was written about him in Little Women.  Now that I've read this novel, I'm thinking his being away from his family for the whole of LW was probably a good thing.  This man is a dreamer and a philosopher.  There is nothing wrong with that.  What is wrong to me is despite whatever is occurring around him or who it impacts negatively, he clings to those ideals stubbornly and makes several very poor decisions as a result.  I found nothing to admire in his character so I found it very hard to be sympathetic to anything going on with him.  I especially cannot admire a character who goes off to war and leaves a family of five to live off the charity of others just so he can have a clear conscience or one who claims to be so principled but considers being unfaithful to his wife.  The character of Marmee also bugged me quite a bit because she was so vastly different from the kind and loving version in Little Women.  Here she is a very spirited woman with an almost zealous devotion to the abolitionist cause.

The actual story itself was well written and brought to life the battlefield, the plight of the slaves, and the areas of Concord and Washington DC.  She does a fabulous job with the setting and details of the period even if I had issues with Mr. March and Marmee.  In one section the Union Army takes over several abandoned plantations and allows northerners to purchase them and pay freed slaves wages to try and make a profit.  Mr. March works at one such place as a teacher to the freed slaves.  This portion of the book as well as the story of how Mr. March makes it back to the Union Army after becoming a man wanted by the Confederates were among my favorites.  

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and it is because she writes so beautifully.  A Quote:

"Who is the brave man--he who feels no fear? If so, then bravery is but a polite term for a mind devoid of rationality and imagination."

I loved Year of Wonders by this author and although maybe not quite as much, People of the Book as well.  I am still a big fan.  I just wish in this one the unveiling of the the mysterious Mr. March could have given us someone a little more likable or with a little more spine and also didn't take such an already well developed character from the original in an entirely different direction. People who have never read Little Women might enjoy this one quite a bit.  Those who have read it will probably encounter some of the issues I ran into.

 This book is from my own personal library.


  1. This sounds interesting, but I think I should read Little Women first. I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.