Review: March, Geraldine Brooks

I bought this years ago, it won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2006 and was widely spoken of but I was very busy and it slipped down my To Be Read list but re-reading Little Women a few weeks ago inspired me to pick it up again.  Geraldine Brooks endeavours in this novel to lend a voice to one of the blankest characters in literary history – Mr March himself.  As the title suggests, Little Women is very much about the girls, about what it means to be a woman and how to conduct oneself.  Ordinary domestic order is in flux with the father absent and despite the family’s middle class pretensions, they are in a state of poverty.  This is a tale of sisters doing it for themselves, standing on their own two feet and ringing all their own bells etc.  The Civil War is merely the painted backdrop, offering the alibi to Mr March since he has no real role in this drama – where there is advice to had, it comes from Marmee who is the deus ex machina, even summoning Beth back from the claws of the Grim Reaper.  To consider the cruel realities of the Civil War is to look past the gentle story of childhood adventures and girlish escapades and see this year for what it truly must have been.  Gone With The Wind may be a notorious potboiler, but yet Margaret Mitchell was recounting many of the stories handed down to her by her grandparents while one has a feeling that Louisa Alcott was sanitising her own recent history.

To be frank though, Mr March was never a character that held any interest.  He is blank to the point of not-existing, his only distinguishing characteristic is that his daughters are mysteriously fond of him – he is the ultimate absent father, even when he is present, he might as well be elsewhere.  The final pages of March have him back in his family’s arms and repeating Alcott’s words to each of his daughters on how the year has changed them and the man internally wonders why nobody asks how he has altered.  The brutal fact is, the reader never cared.  Some of the girls in my class at school put on their own highly interpretative play of it and gaily killed off the father because they had simply forgotten that he survived to the end of the book.  I was distinctly dubious that a story centred on him could actually hold water.  In the end, I did appreciate March the novel but I finished up with a distinctly mixed opinion on March the man.

Not a practical man

Brooks has not simply appropriated Alcott’s characters but also Alcott’s family members themselves. She admits using Alcott’s own father Bronson Alcott, the transcendentalist, as the model for her own creation.  I have my own thoughts on Mr Alcott.  In my childhood edition of Little Women, it had at the front the generic one paragraph biography of Louisa Alcott, recounting that her father ‘was not a practical man’ and that this had caused the family financial hardship.  I had never encountered the word ‘practical’ before (I was seven) so had to ask my mother for a definition.  Ever since, whenever I hear the word practical, I think of him even just for a flash of a second.  Bronson Alcott, the antithesis of practical.  While he squandered the family fortune on a failed commune idea, Brooks’ March loses his due to an ill-advised over-investment in John Brown’s insurrection.

My knowledge of American history is very limited – when I first read Little Women, I had no idea about what kind of war was being fought but I have picked up bits and pieces here and there, pretty much entirely through reading.  It’s a strange conflict though – a few months ago I was at a friend’s house watching a film with her eight year-old daughter where one of the child characters has a father who is a Civil War re-enacter.  Incidentally – what is it about civil wars that makes people want to re-enact them?  It’s perverse.  Anyway, I gave as simple an explanation of the American Civil War as I could think of but I felt that in explaining that the South wanted to keep slaves, the North wanted to set them free, it paints a picture that is far too black and white.  I remember Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain where one man remarked to another that if they thought that the North had gone to war out of righteous indignation about slavery, then they had a very naive view of human nature.  But as Brooks proves time and again, Mr March is a very naive man.

Back home in Concord, his daughters are imagining glory for him as a chaplain but from the opening pages, Brooks lays heavy the indignities of warfare, the stink, the wounds, the danger, the terror.  It always seems that both sides of the American Civil War imagined for themselves a glorious conflict – and so indeed do the re-enactors – but of course warfare so rarely is quite what people have dreamed of.  Interspersed throughout the novel are Bronson’s own words, his syrupy letters home to his family, his papers having been pillaged by Brooks.  His daughters may be proud of their father’s heroism but he is baldly told by his superior that the task of the chaplain ought to be to provide comfort for the men but March just makes his comrades uncomfortable.

Early in the novel, March finds himself at a home which he first visited twenty years before as a young pedlar.  There he first met Grace, a young black woman, raised before the ban on literacy.  Like his real life alter-ego, the youthful March finds himself seduced by the glamour and leisure of the plantation life but his dream is abruptly shattered when Grace is savagely beaten for having encouraged him to educate a child who is one of her fellow-slaves.  Returning to the plantation two decades on, March finds many things have changed, that the society that Mr Clements believed would endure for his and his son’s lifetimes has crumbled but Grace is there yet.

Mr March in the 1995 film

Time and again it becomes clear that March is a man of ideas rather than deeds.  He imagines that the literacy he gifts to the child Prudence will set her free but he cannot save her.  He burbles to himself that he does not mourn the loss of his fortune since it gave his daughters the gift of practicality and saved them from vanity – all the while his wife works in the background to keep everybody fed and clothed.  He will not eat meat, drink milk, wear wool, use a pistol – his principles are very fine but these are not principled times.  It reminded me of The Hitman’s Guide to House-Cleaning where the protagonist is amazed by Iceland’s insistence on no-smoking in public places, considering that only a country who had been war-free for fifty years would care about these kind of niceties.  Mr March (and Mr Alcott) have very pretty principles but they do not make life easy for those around them.

March‘s subtitle is that it is a love story in a time of war – I did not find it so.  True, Brooks recounted March’s courtship and marriage of Marmee and even his attraction and adultery with Grace.  Yet neither relationship was truly interesting as a reader.  March had had a life with Marmee yet he had given her so much toil and grief and even his insistence that she regulate her temper felt stifling.  In contrast to the strict morals of Little Women, the passionate union painted by Brooks felt utterly unconvincing.  To add further incredulity, Brooks writes March as so insecure that he invests in John Brown’s schemes out of a desire to seek his firebrand wife’s approval.  Marmee truly seems to have married beneath herself.

The element of the story that intrigued me most was the description of the Underground Railroad which helped runaway slaves get away to safety in Canada.  This part stretched the boundaries of Little Women‘s plot as it made all the girls part of the family secret; when the Marches are forced to decamp from their big house to a cottage, the first order of business is building a new hidey-hole for when the runaways arrive.  The way the family all had their parts to play when a ‘package’ arrived was fascinating and it was heartening to see the eleven year-old Beth save one particularly vulnerable runaway from the constable because Beth reasoned that it was not a lie to say that there were no slaves in the house since her parents had taught her that God saw no slaves, only equal peoples and that if God saw everything but could not see a slave then there really could not be a slave in the house.  For a character best known for dying, it was nice to see her allowed some courage.

Still, for all that – there were many missed opportunities in March.  Discarded by his comrades, March spends much of the novel working as a teacher at the contraband plantation leased by Ethan Canning and there March witnesses the former-slaves working in conditions that are even worse than their former captivity.  Canning is a deeply conflicted character and as such he is far more interesting than March himself.  Ethan Canning has spent all he has on the lease but discovers that the unrest has ruined the planting regime and that the land will not likely yield enough to return his investment, meaning that he pushes the slaves the the boundaries of their endurance in the hope of scraping enough to stave off ruin.  He is a harassed young man attempting to run the entire plantation with no experience and no one to help him – the reader realises the organisation and money behind the slave plantations allowed for a certain amount of tranquillity to the slaves lives which they miss in their new freedom.  March’s realisations about the difficulties his long-preached for freedom has wrought for the former slaves feel repetitive as again and again and again his ideals are proved unworkable but I felt it might have been a more powerful novel to walk through Canning’s shoes as he went from Northern businessman to plantation owner who feels himself forced to take on the cruelties of his predecessors.

Indeed, hard-won though it may be, liberty is no easy business for the former slaves.  The scene where the elderly slave proudly announces that she has learnt to say her numbers one to ten but then promptly forgets three letters is heart-breaking.  At the beginning of the novel, Mr Clements had pontificated to March that slavery was instructive in that the slaves benefited from the moral example of their masters and that in generations to come would be fit for freedom.  It was infuriating to see that ignorance was used as an excuse to enslave them and then also as a tool – in refusing to educate them, they forced slaves to forever shut their brains and punished them if they did not.  I know very little about the history of slavery in America but that part of the novel made me feel truly angry.

March is heartbroken that each effort of his to improve the lives of his pupils and the wider ex-slave community only brings more sorrow.  As the plantation is pillaged by Confederate soldiers, March is forced to confront his own personal limitations.  The difference between the courage of his convictions and words contrasts sharply with the man who cowers unable to move while other men are killed.  He is a physical coward and can do nothing to save the people he has journeyed so far to save.  And so we arrive at the crisis that we knew was coming, when the telegram is sent and Marmee has to go South to her husband’s sickbed.  Yet there is more to it as the mute young girl Zannah, devastated by her own personal loss, scratches out words in charcoal to identify March to Union rescuers, ‘yoonyin preechr’ – for all his many failings, she sums him up as a ‘gud kin man’ and the letters he has taught her will save his life.

There are many prominent young slave saints throughout the novel, Ptomely dies to save March, shouting out to him to stay hidden, Jesse, Celia who looks like Amy, Jimse adored child of Zannah – March is finally amongst the slave people he has so long wanted to save but when he reaches the hospital and finds himself once more in the company of Grace, he recognises the failure of his offered service.  He went South with the dream of abolition but Grace kindly makes clear the emptiness of his ideals.  Early on, March described Grace as a model for ‘our own little women’ but Grace astutely remarks that March ‘loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated.’  But Grace is not an idea, she is a woman with practical problems, griefs and guilts of her own and all the fine words in the world are not going to make her life any easier.  And so March is better off going home.

March tells a tale of the abolitionist losing faith – we can wish all the good will in the world but words are weak and watery and worthless in the time of war.  It was a beautifully written novel filled with haunting details, such as how before the battle, March and the men are discomforted by the sight of the surgeon flinging down sawdust to catch the blood ‘yet to flow’.  Still, there were times when it felt unnecessarily shocking, a little ‘too written’ as the horrors arrived to break March’s spirit.  As a spin-off, it was a high-quality one but if I rejoiced that it was no Death Comes To Pemberley, I still did not feel I had uncovered another Wide Sargasso Sea.  Instead, it was just March, an engaging glimpse of Civil War disillusion.

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March by Geraldine Brooks
Published by HarperCollins UK on 2006
Genres: Family, Fiction, General, Historical, Spin-off
Pages: 298
ISBN: 9780007165872

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