March by Geraldine Brooks

6 Jan
This was a really, really interesting book. It was a bit of an unusual experience for me, because I ended up not really liking the main characters too much. I mean, they were well-rounded and complex and interesting, and I definitely wanted to know what would happen to them, but as far as agreeing with them or liking their behavior, not so much. That sounds a little harsh, but what I really want to convey is that Brooks did an amazing job of juxtaposing the two people in a marriage, shedding light on how one’s perceptions in a marriage may be completely true to one person but not accurate for the other. Ostensibly, this is about war and loss and bravery (or the lack thereof), but tying all the horrible events together was the story of two well-meaning people who love, and also hurt, each other.

March is based on Brooks’ imaginings of what Mr. March, the patriarch of the March family of Little Women, experienced during his time with the Union army during the Civil War, away from his wife and daughters. Little Women is a bit of a distant memory for me, and I wish I had reread it before starting on March, as I think I would have grasped the intertextuality a bit more. Mr. March, an ardent abolitionist, decides to join the Union army at the outbreak of war, leaving his impoverished but loving family behind. The book follows his evolution from a confident though naive idealist to a broken and ill man, haunted by his failures. The story of his youth as a peddler through the South, his marriage to Mrs. March (Marmee), and his and Marmee’s work in the Underground Railroad is woven throughout his experiences at war.

Y’all, it took every inch of my patience to listen to Mr. March sometimes. A more naive man was never seen. His innocence was irritating but noble; he only ever expected the best from people. Time and again, his best efforts are too strident, too unrealistic to bear fruit. At one point, March has left his position as a chaplain in the army to teach “contraband,” or freed slaves, how to read and write in between their shifts working on a cotton plantation. The Confederate locals are none too pleased with these Union interlopers who seek to change their way of life, and risk of attack is high. One of the workers talks of his worries about violence at the plantation, and March calmly assures him that there are standards of behavior that everyone adheres to.

“Jesse, the Confederate soldier is a hard and desperate fighter, but he is not a savage. There are rules, even in war…”

He stopped then and gave me a look of the kind I had become all too familiar with in the course of my life, a look that combined pity and exasperation.

“Marse, them men round here what hides out in the woods – they’s thicker’n fleas in there – they ain’t even rightly in the army, and they sure enough don’t follow no rules.”

That kind of innocence was a constant throughout March’s life and marriage. When the abolitionist John Brown propositioned him for an investment, March happily gave as much as he could, eventually bankrupting the family. Still, he could feel no ill will or regret because it had all been “for a good cause.” Though they had little to live on, March’s ideals pushed him to leave his family at the age of 40 to join the Union army, leaving Marmee to struggle to raise the children and provide for them herself.

Though he is burned often by his idealism, he is also rewarded. Marmee and his “little women” adore him, though, through an ingenious device employed by Brooks, Marmee’s voice is heard in the latter part of the book and the reader is given much more understanding of exactly how she felt about how her life turned out. Though I didn’t always like Marmee, I admired her determination to stick things out, no matter what, and ultimately I felt she was just as brave as March, gambling her inner peace and soul as much as March gambled their money and his life.

I don’t know that I had the typical reaction to the ending of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, but hearing Marmee’s voice and watching her learn the secrets her husband had kept from her was difficult. Brooks did a fantastic job showing the compromises and sacrifices of marriage, and how sometimes you have to dig deeper than you ever thought possible to make your own union work. I also loved the extent of Brooks’ research – at times, I was astounded at how detailed her account of the Civil War, slavery, and life during that time were. I feel like she could successfully run a cotton plantation herself at this point.

I’m really impressed by how well Brooks knows her craft, and I’m looking forward to reading more from her. I think People of the Book might be next.

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