A wonderful, rich tapestry like Geraldine Brooks’s March is a little hard for me to review, but as I just finished it last night, the story is still fresh in my mind . . . so here we go!
March is a riveting work of historical fiction set in 1861, early days of the American Civil War. An addition to the world of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the novel follows Robert March, the girls’ absentee father, as he leaves Massachusetts for Virginia in order to minister and help educate the former slaves on the struggling plantation owned by Ethan Canning.
The book is so much more than that, though. March, a minister, leaves his beloved Marmee and “little women” in order to help “put his money where his mouth is,” if you’ll pardon the cliche. Marmee and Robert are abolitionists who speak and preach often about the evils of slavery and have opened their home up as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but Mr. March knows how strongly Marmee feels about the cause — and wants to do more, to please her and himself. When a group of frightened young men from his town join the Union forces and ask him for some words of comfort, March surprises all assembled — especially his wife — by stating he plans join them and enlist in the Army himself. And thus begins his harrowing journey toward education and redemption — and reconciling his painful past.
I’ll leave the intricacies of the plot uncovered, since reading the book was such an adventure for me. I didn’t know much of anything at all about it, and I’ve never read Little Women; I didn’t know if March would even survive the journey. Readers will clomp along in March’s boots through much of the story, which takes him from Massachusetts to Virginia to Washington, D.C. and around again. We travel through distance and time, but I was never bored or agitated as everything continued to shift. Stories of the past and the present are blended together so well, the book did feel a bit like a mystery to me — all of the clues eventually came together.
And at many moments, March left me breathless. After reading and loving Brooks’s Year of Wonders, I knew to expect a book deftly blending truth and fiction, but March felt less like a novel and more like a diary to me. The man himself is a study of how war changes a person — and I could see pieces of friends and boyfriends embodied in his character, noting that they return to me now from a very different war, but a brutal war just the same. Much of the emotion and turmoil expressed is universal — and probably universal to both sides fighting the battle. It’s just that I was placed so exquisitely inside his mind, it was hard for me to empathize with anyone else.
I loved reading Mr. March’s letters to Marmee at the beginnings of chapters, watching him carefully weighing each word to not be untruthful, but to spare his beloved the pain of knowing the true extent of perilous life in the South. When Mr. March arrives at the Virginian plantation to work with Canning and the freed slaves, I felt my entire body tensing — knowing that the precarious “castle” (or dilapidated estate house) in which they lived would eventually crumble. March developed quite the reputation as an abolitionist — of which he was proud, but still — and couldn’t find much peace over it. But nor could he find any peace over the vile institution of slavery in America. Or the measures in which he chooses to combat it . . .
In the end, did he find his peace? Read March. Lovers of historical fiction will devour this one quickly, and fans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will rejoice at this “backstage” take on a beloved classic. And I don’t think I’ll look at history quite the same way again.
4.5 out of 5!