Monday, February 2, 2015

'March' by Geraldine Brooks

2015 Reading Challenge Week 5 - A Pulitzer Prize Winner

 Some time ago, a friend recommended 'March' and the following day, I was browsing the bookshelves of a second hand shop when it tumbled down and fell at my feet. I felt I had to buy it, although I never got around to reading it until now. When this option for this year's challenge came up, I decided it would be the one. This novel was the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize For Fiction. From the author of the acclaimed YEAR OF WONDERS, an historical novel and love story set during a time of catastrophe, on the front lines of the American Civil War. Acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks gives us the story of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women - and conjures a world of brutality, stubborn courage and transcendent love. An idealistic abolitionist, March has gone as chaplain to serve the Union cause. But the war tests his faith not only in the Union - which is also capable of barbarism and racism - but in himself. As he recovers from a near-fatal illness, March must reassemble and reconnect with his family, who have no idea of what he has endured. A love story set in a time of catastrophe, March explores the passions between a man and a woman, the tenderness of parent and child, and the life-changing power of an ardently held belief.

Remember the first chapter of 'Little Women' when Meg says, 'I think it was so splendid of father to go as chaplain, when he was too old to be drafted and not strong enough for a soldier'? This is his story, told in first person about his experiences in the Civil War, and also includes flashbacks of his youth and life with his wife and daughters.

His story is based on research Geraldine Brooks did into the life of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott's father. March (for his Christian name is never divulged) was a peddler in his late teens when he first experienced the southern way of life. Prosperous in his twenties, he lost his fortune investing in John Brown's underground railway. It's interesting seeing local historical figures such as Brown, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau appear in the story. Concord, Massachusetts, had its fair share of celebrities back in the mid 1800s, and probably hasn't had many since. 

March comes across as an idealistic thinker. His planned Utopian community, where men and women could live with nature but without its exploitation, sounds like a forerunner of similar twentieth century attempts. Perhaps this goes with his vegetarianism, a principle he stuck to all his life. He always put himself in the place of humans and animals alike, making me applaud his empathy. March brought to mind the quote I once read that a man's character is measured by the way he treats those who can do nothing for him. Regardless of the opinions displayed by those around him, he found the ex-slaves in this novel to be 'God's image cut in ebony.'

It's easy to recognise members of the 'Little Women' family, making this book quite clever. It contains an earlier version of Marmee, while she still hadn't controlled the fiery temper she mentions to Jo in the classic. But I definitely wouldn't consider this novel to be a prequel, sequel or companion volume. The genre is way too different, with its in-your-face horror stories of war. I feel sorry for any young girls who may like the blurb and decide to read it, based on their fondness of 'Little Women', with its warm, cosy, wholesome themes. 'March' is way different.

Even though the book was published in the twenty-first century, Brooks keeps the lofty style of voice used by the father in 'Little Women', and somehow the preachy, outdated nineteenth century tone comes across OK. She plants lots of thought-provoking quotes in his mouth.

On education and his passion for teaching - 'My objective was to awaken their hearts to the ideas dormant there, rather than to implant facts in their memory.'

On courage - 'Who is the brave man, he who knows no fear? If so, then bravery is but a polite term for a mind devoid of rationality or imagination.'

On poverty - 'I was glad to give up the garments on the peg rail that spoke to me of slave labor, worm slaughter and sheep theft, for is not the fleece the rightful property of the sheep? And why should the humble silkworm be sentenced to death for our finery?'

As for ranking this book, I usually love to escape with uplifting stories that end happily for the good characters. This is full of tragedy, made even more heartbreaking by Geraldine Brooks' descriptive writing which leaves nothing to the imagination. It's not my favourite type of book, yet I can see why it's very good. Although some books are great for escapism, others are written from a sense of responsibility that we should understand our world history, and the sacrifices some made for others. This is one of those types of books.

The best quote by March to end with might be this one. 'How could one turn the other cheek to this evil when the cheek being turned was not one's own, but that of innocents?'

3.5 stars.



  1. I haven't got to this part of the challenge yet - I'm tossing up between The Shipping News and The Life of Pi (I've got both second-hand paperbacks in the to-read pile, and have had for a couple of years now).

    This sounds like a challenging read, but worth the effort.

    1. Hi Iola,
      You could use one for the Pulitzer Prize and one for the book you own but haven't read yet.
      I read The Life of Pi a few years ago, and as my mum likes The Shipping News, that might have to fit that category. By then, I might be tired of hefty, literary books and ask her to choose something lighter :)

  2. Thanks Paula. I was wondering if you'd read this one yet. I really liked it, but as you say, it's a very different genre to Little Women, so I would recommend it more for adult readers. It took me a couple of chapters to get into it, but once it touched on the slavery issues and the personal dramas, it had me hooked. Geraldine Brooks is such an interesting writer. I don't always agree with her, but she always makes me think. It may not be uplifting in the same sense as Little Women, but it does show the best and worst of human nature and that good people can still make a difference in difficult times. And who would have thought Marmie was so racy in her youth!!! Thanks for your thoughts :)

    1. Hi Nola,
      She did a very impressive job of writing the book, no doubt about that. It's not one to be forgotten, making that period of history come alive. Some of March's personal theology was interesting too, such as his feeling about whether or not Jesus was truly a deity. I wonder whether she researched and found out that it matched Bronson Alcott's views.

  3. I agree Nola about Geraldine Brooks - she is an interesting writer, who makes me think even though I don't always agree with her. I went to hear her talk about Caleb's Crossing a couple of years ago and she is meticulous in her research, beautifully descriptive and really works to get the "voice" of her protagonist. I enjoyed March Paula - though as you say there are some graphic scences and it was interesting the way she incorporated many of the elements of Bronson Alcott into his character - especially as Little Women is already largely autobiographical. I didn't like however how she changed the characters William Mompesson/Micahel Mompellion in Year of Wonders and the Matthew Mayhew/Makepeace Mayfield from commendable to rigid and unsavoury. In the 4 books of hers I've read, she is much more sympathetic to Jews and Muslims than to Christians - which I think comes out in her People of the Book (another fascinating read).

    1. Hi Jenny - I've seen her interviewed by Jennifer Byrne a few times and from memory, I think she had a Catholic background and converted to Judaism. She was also a journalist in the Middle East.

    2. She's a lady with a fascinating personal history!

  4. sorry that should have been "Matthew Mayhew/Makepeace Mayfeild" in Caleb's Crossing"

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Brooks has been such a prolific and thought-provoking author. I still haven't got around to reading Caleb's Crossing. Remember when I put it on my list of books I'm not sure I want to read. It's still there for the time being. I can definitely understand how you think she takes a bit of license at times.

  5. One more thing I didn't mention in the review was that interesting question of authenticity. As LMM clearly made Little Women greatly autobiographical (as you mentioned, Jenny) I can't help wondering how much of this storyline actually happened to Bronson Alcott. Brooks made it clear in what she wrote at the end that she researched him extensively. I like the way she also used some of Thoreau's words from 'Walden' to put in his mouth for this story.