Friday, June 5, 2009

Review of the Day: March

The trouble with novels about the Civil War is that they are bound to follow a requisite formula, and Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer-winning March is no exception. All the familiar scenes, themes, and elements are there: lonely letters home, the smoke-filled chaos of battle, stealing a dead person’s boots, whipping a slave, selling a slave’s family members, a slave revolt, Southern gentility, Northern rough manners, soldiers trashing the plantation, buildings burning, having no food but root vegetables, and the mandatory amputation of limbs with hand tools.

Civil War novels only distinguish themselves with what gets used to string together these common essentials. Brooks differentiates her book by using a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee abolitionist as her protagonist and developing a personal relationship between him and a beautiful, educated house slave.

Brooks also plays a little literary game, in that Mr. March is the father of the eponymous Little Women in Luisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. This might be a more compelling device if Little Women were more compelling. Not knowing anything about the fictional Mr. March, Brooks fashioned him after Alcott’s colorful father, Amos Bronson Alcott, an innovative educator, friend of Thoreau and Emerson, experimental farmer, and strict vegetarian. Weaving Thoreau and Emerson into the story, as well as the fanatic abolitionist John Brown, was an interesting touch. But March’s vegetarianism – discussed often and at length – was a distraction that added nothing to the story.

Overall, March is well-written and tells a good story. For a reader new to, or completely enamored with, Civil War novels, it would be a great read. But there is not enough novelty to capture the fancy of more jaded readers.


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Rebecca Reid said...

I haven't read many Civil War novels, so I enjoyed it. But I agree that it did stand out as something extra spectacular.

Rebecca Reid said...

I meant did not.

Meghan said...

I agree, I often struggle with Civil War novels. There is just a feel about them that I can't get past and few make it onto my favorites list. While I did think Little Women was compelling at least as a child, I didn't really like Geraldine Brooks playing about with the characters I loved when I was little.

Thank you for linking!

bermudaonion said...

I haven't read much about the Civil War but this one does sound good to me.

Jessica James said...

I have not read this book yet, but it sounds like something I would enjoy. Speaking from experience, Civil War novels are very hard to write, especially when the author has the goal of appealing to Civil War buffs as well as those who are not all that interested in history. Thanks for the review.

Rose City Reader said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I really did kind of enjoy the book. Kind of. But it is hard -- you can't write or read a Civil War novel without the field hospital scene of sawing off a leg with a hacksaw. It has to be there; but they are all the same. One hacksaw amputation scene is the same as the next. And I am not a big enough person to get past this issue and appreciate the unique parts of the books.

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