Friday, June 5, 2009
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.
The Biblio Brat
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