I was not especially eager to read my book club’s recent selection, March by Geraldine Brooks for two reasons. First, it is a Civil War novel. Despite being dragged by my Dad to every Civil War monument in Middle Tennessee, I am not a Civil War enthusiast.
The second reason is that the title character is based on the father in Little Women. I am skeptical of books that are inspired by characters from other novels. For example, the novels of Jane Austen have spawned dozens of sequels. Did you know that Mr. & Mrs. Darcy became a crime-solving duo after their marriage? Is Louisa May Alcott the next author to catch the Austen affliction?
Happily, my hesitation about March was unfounded. Using the letters- back- home to fresh effect and a few beautifully rendered vignettes, Brooks depicts the conflict at the most personal level. There are no generals or famous battles, just men and women getting by as best they can.
Since the father is mentioned only briefly in Little Women, Brooks takes inspiration for her character from Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott. Bronson Alcott was a strict vegetarian, abolitionist, and transcendentalist. His most tangible legacy is Fruitlands, the wildly unsuccessful utopian community he founded in Harvard, MA, which is now a museum.
In addition to sharing Bronson Alcott’s radical convictions, March is high-minded and rather obstinate. In a burst of patriotic zeal, the middle-aged March leaves Marmee and the girls to join the Union army as a chaplain. After the horrific battle of Ball’s Bluff, March offers his assistance at a field hospital housed in a formerly grand Southern mansion. Although the property has changed drastically, March recognizes the Clement estate from a previous trip some twenty years earlier.
At that time, March was a young Connecticut peddler. Mr. Clement’s luxurious property and stimulating conversation initially dazzled him. He was also attracted to a lovely slave named Grace. However, after he witnessed a vicious whipping, March’s admiration turned to disgust and guilt.
Remarkably, Grace is still in residence at the ruined Clement estate. Once again, this virtuous woman entrances March. Although he is careful not to refer to Grace by name, he can’t help but mention her in a letter home. “But here is the cloth of gold from which her character is spun; she refuses to leave her frail master, stating that he is incapable of surviving without her. And yet I know that this very man once had her whipped for some most trivial transgression of his authority. What an example of Christian forgiveness! Some call them less than human; I call her more than saintly-a model, indeed, for our own little women.”
Later on March is fired from his regiment for being among other things, high-minded and obstinate. He is assigned to a liberated plantation estate named Oak Landing, which is leased to an Illinois attorney. Although devastated by his dismissal, he is characteristically reticent in his correspondence home, calling Oak Landing “ a great experiment of equality.”
The harsh reality of the “great experiment” shocks March and forces him to reconsider his cherished principles.
When Oak Landing explodes in violence, March barely escapes with his life. While recovering at a hospital in Washington, he encounters Grace one last time. He appeals to her for absolution and guidance. In a bracing final exchange, Grace makes it clear what March needs to do. “Go home. Be a father to your daughters. That, at least, you can do. They are the ones who need you.”
This ECW Classic Review was originally published in NFocus magazine.