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.