March by Geraldine Brooks
March is the story of what Mr. March was doing when he was away from his family from the book "Little Women". As a "Little Women" fan, I have been eagerly awaiting my turn to read this one, particularly as I love some of Brooks's other books, and because March won the Pulitzer Prize. Mr. March is not mentioned much in Alcott's "Little Women", and we know that he goes off to the Civil War as a Union chaplain. Brooks takes this information, as well as as much historical information about Alcotts' father as she could, and transforms it into Mr. March's story. As always, Brooks tells a complelling tale. She seamlessly moves between Mr. March's backstory as a traveling salesman through the south before his wedding, then through his courtship of Marmee, through his financial ruin that is mentioned but not detailed in "Little Women", and finally through his Civil War experiences. She also expertly navigates the narrative of one man trying to live his principles, finding rejection where he expected acceptance, being forcibly humbled and cast-off, and still managing to do good with his sense of self left in tatters. Mr. March is not appreciated by his regiment, many of whom are fighting because they are told to and are paid to do so, not because the abolitionist cause burns brightly in their souls, as it does in Mr. March's. When he is asked to leave his regiment and seek reassignment, or be forcibly removed from the regiment, he finds reassignment on a plantation, recently transformed into a working farm run by a northern businessman, and where the slaves are employees, to be paid for their labors. There, he strives to educate the slaves, teaching them to read and write and a little geography, and he learns much from them about love and survival in hard times. When a group of southern guerrillas raids the farm one night, burning it to the ground, kidnapping and torturing anyone they can get their hands on, Mr. March is taken captive. He and the slaves eventually rise up against their aggressors, but only Mr. March and one of the slave women survive the encounter. Beaten, ill with malaria, and broken in spirit, Mr. March is left by the slave woman at a Union field hospital. He is taken to Washington D.C. for recovery, although the doctor isn't hopeful he will survive. Mrs. March comes to him from their home in Connecticut, and in their time together, they realize how they have grown apart and changed in his time away. They struggle through together, and ultimately, Mr. March, on the mend, is able to return home to his family.
There is no doubt that this is a terrific story, and told masterfully. You feel as if you come away from it having actually been there with him- the heat, the humidity, the struggles, the pain of heart, the realization that redemption is possible. It's simply amazing. My only critique is that I absolutely hated the way Brooks portrayed Marmee. Had she been a character created for this novel alone, I would have embraced her fiery, impetuous, poorly-controlled temper, and probably loved her for it. However, the Marmee of this book is not my beloved Marmee of Alcott's "Little Women". Gone is the soft, refined, ever-graceful, patient, wise Marmee I have always loved. Even though Marmee does tell Jo at one point in "Little Women" that they are more alike than Jo will ever know, the Marmee of "March" makes Jo appear as gentle and steady as a sleeping kitten. I wish Brooks had allowed more of Alcott's Marmee to permeate her character. One can be strong and brave without being obnoxious, which is what Brooks' Marmee becomes frequently in this book. Otherwise, an amazing read, and one I shall not soon forget.
PS- Have you seen the beautiful trailer for the Little Women mini-series coming to Masterpiece on PBS in May? I can't wait!