Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

March

Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2005; ISBN 0-670-03335-9)

I guess most American women have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at some point; I know I did, but it wasn’t a favorite that I reread over and over, and my memory of it is quite vague, despite having seen the 1994 movie based on it. Basically, I remembered that the main character was named Jo, and that was about it.

Jo had three sisters (Meg, Beth, and Amy), a mother named Marmee (which I took to be an odd spelling of Mommy, but according to this, it was her nickname), and a father who wasn’t there. It was set in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and he had gone away to minister to the Union troops fighting to end slavery. Master storyteller Geraldine Brooks tells Mr. March’s side of the story in this amazing historical novel.

In the fascinating afterword, Brooks explains that she based her Mr. March’s character on Alcott’s own father, Amos Bronson Alcott, who, like Mr. March and his wife, was a fervent abolitionist. Alcott was a teacher; Mr. March is a minister (albeit an unconventional one) who becomes a teacher to runaway slaves (so-called “contraband”) on a northern-run cotton plantation in Virginia while the war rages on in other parts. (One of his pupils will use the literacy skills he taught her to save his life later).

March is a strict vegan (again, Brooks based this trait on Alcott’s father, who founded a commune whose members eschewed not only meat but also wool, and who refused to fertilize their fields with animal manure or to kill agricultural pests that were ruining their crops) and very dedicated to pacifism and abolition. The horrors of the war sorely test his values, and during a horrific attack on the plantation by a rebel militia, his survival instinct will not allow him to sacrifice his life for his friends, leaving him a changed man, one who is overcome with guilt and self-hatred. March feels doubly guilty because the war has brought him back into the presence of Grace Clement, whom he had encountered as a young man when she was a slave on her father’s plantation, and with whom he had a dalliance.

Several chapters told from Marmee’s point of view, when March is hospitalized in Washington, DC and physically unable to write his own story, explore the shock and pain experienced by the wife as she realizes that her husband has not been completely faithful to her.

Like all of Brooks’ novels, this one pulls the reader into the hearts and minds of the characters and teaches about the period and the events they are living through in a fascinating way. (I feel inspired to reread Little Women.)

 

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