March, Geraldine Brooks

[asa book]0143036661[/asa] I was prepared to like this novel. I certainly like the premise, a story about the father of the March girls (aka Little Women), a character only seen briefly in Alcott’s novels.

So you’ve got this character, a man who joins the Civil War not as a soldier, but as a chaplain. He’s got an unsual background, self educated, thoughtful, radical politics for his time. A New England abolitionist, he can’t stay out of the war. Once he’s in the middle of it, he finds himself contemplating his life. We get most of the story through his letters to his wife and four daughters, and his first person perspective.

My problem with this novel is that Brooks went to extreme lengths to set up the conflicts she needed to draw a particular picture. Were Northerners any better than Southerners when it came to racism? Interesting question. With March as her main character, she could have approached it from multiple angles, but she set up a convoluted backstory. As a young man, March tells us, he roamed the south as a peddler. On one of his early journeys he calls at a plantation where he ends up staying much longer than intended. It is a beautiful place, the hospitality is sincere, he is treated with kindness and drawn in by the owner’s generosity with his library and time. This is the same plantation he will encounter much later in his life, during the war.

It’s the plantation that’s problematic. March’s early experiences there are chock full of cliches. Every character you’ve ever read or seen on screen populating a traditional plantation is here. It almost feels as though the author were ticking off a list as she wrote, a set of atrocities that had to be included before she considered the scenes finished. Did these things happen? Of course. And because they did happen, and because those stories have been told many times, it’s especially hard to make the telling fresh, to make the story new. Hard, but important.

At the center of the plantation Brooks puts on the page is an intelligent, dignified slave woman March is attracted to, and who suffers greatly because of him. It’s to this plantation and to this woman that he returns as a mature, middle aged army chaplain. Of course.

There is so much to admire in the way Brooks writes. Her prose is beautiful, her descriptions are evocative. But in terms of characterization, motivation, plot, there is a clumsiness here which was unfortunate, given an interesting premise and the foundation of the Little Women characters the author had to work with.

8 Replies to “March, Geraldine Brooks”

  1. I read this and quite liked it, although there were points which didn’t quite sit right. Overall though pretty entertaining IMO.

  2. Marg– I know many people really love this novel, and I’m not surprised. There is a lot to admire about it. Just didn’t work for me.

    Kelly — the thing is, it’s the author’s job to draw you in and make you see why the character is interesting. I liked the premise, and I wanted to know more about him — but again, not for everybody.

  3. I think the problems with it for me had something to do with it not feeling like an historical novel. The characters to me had a modern mind set. I liked her previous novel a lot so I should go back and see if that was an issue there (I can’t remember that it was).

  4. Sara, extraordinary that you posted this today, as I read Year of Wonders yesterday and started on March last night. I must say I really enjoyed Year of Wonders and wasn’t put off by the ending, as others I know have been. With March, I am fascinated by the contradiction that he is a deeply moral man with a genuine concern for his fellow humans and a fanatical belief in the cause, but is unable to inspire them or comfort them as chaplain and ends up alienating them all. I acknowledge your points, but the author has drawn me in too much to the character’s struggles and the love story for them to be a problem for me.

  5. I, too, was very excited about reading this book, and hoped to find that same passion and love for life that was exhibited so powerful a theme in Little Women, but I haven’t so far (I’m about 1/3 into listening to it). I find Mr. March to be a horrible bore and pompous to boot. He seems hardly the father figure that Jo had such profound respect for. And while I don’t expect an author to write a character the way I would, I would still like to be able to “buy” his/her presentation of the character. And I simply don’t so far.

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