Little Women's Pa,
flawed and noble, goes to war
with Union Army.
If you read and loved Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, as a child, you should read March, by Geraldine Brooks.
It's a great premise: in Little Women, we follow a mother and four daughters dealing with hardships caused by the father going away to war; in March, Brooks has imagined who the absent father might have been and what he might have been doing.
Alcott fans will note Brooks' Mr. March and Marmee (Mrs. March) are flawed and human, rather than noble and dignified, as Alcott wrote them. Although many Alcott fans have been offended by the flaws (some glaring), it worked for me. Marmee is more believably noble if the reader believes she has struggled to gain control over her volatile nature, and Mr. March also has gained much dignity and reserve as a direct result of the events described in March. Also, since Little Women is narrated by daughter Jo, it makes sense that she is blind to her parents' faults.
Brooks attempted to remain true to the stately language of the nineteenth century, and the pacing suffers as a result. The beginning is especially slow, but the novel bogs down at other points as well, at least to a modern reader whose reading teeth were cut on USA Today.
Still, the book brings up less familiar aspects of the Civil War and poses uncomfortable questions that still rumble after the final page is turned.
For instance, I didn't know about Contraband Camps: plantations Yankees rented and farmed with help from former slaves. Although the former slaves were paid wages (at the end of the season when the cotton was sold), the lifestyle wasn't much different from slavery.
And the racism rampant among the northern troops was shocking to a modern sensibility. I wanted to believe Brooks had overstated it, but I'm sure the average Yankee soldier went to war for many different reasons, few of them noble. Even Marmee has a brief moment of racism, despite her lifelong involvement with the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad.
I want people to be larger, better, than they are. I face this regularly -- like on the most recent Survivor finale when a silicon-enhanced beauty that already had stiffed my personal champion (twice!) swore she'd ally with him -- then voted him out of the game. I was livid. I want people to have integrity, to be honorable, to remain true. I want to believe I can trust people to do what they say they will do. And yes, I am often disappointed, yet I continued to hope and trust.
March was a reminder to me that human is human, petty and small, with only occasional moments of soaring nobility.
Alcott drew much on her personal history to write Little Women. The family is directly patterned after her own parents and sisters, and Brooks followed her lead. Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, left copious notes about his life, and Brooks modeled Mr. March after him.
Alcott herself, however, is probably cringing in her grave since the fictional elements added to Bronson's history include March's most ignoble actions. The real man, Bronson, is known for attempting one of the first integrated classrooms (as well as inventing the concept of "recess," an act which surely should warrant him a federal holiday, at least from school). But Mr. March is ... well, without including spoilers, I can only say I was appalled at some of his choices.
I was fascinated by the appearance of several historic characters (John Brown, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau), but I wish we'd seen more of them. Especially Thoreau (yes, I am a big fan).
March lacks the sweetness of Little Women. It's clearly a story for grownups. The themes are more mature, and the tone is close to despairing at times. As a result, many Alcott fans will find March disappointing, if not infuriating. But most of them will find it interesting, and it will give all of them something to think about.