March, by Geraldine Brooks
Reviewed by Rima Walker
In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott focused on a New England family during an early year of the Civil War as told from the point of view of Marmee (Mrs. March) and her four daughters, Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy. What does this have to do with March? Everything, because the book’s title names the main character, Mr. March, the idealistic father and husband who willingly leaves his home and family to help create a better world as a minister in the Union Army.
He goes off to war, a dedicated abolitionist, a believer in the freedom and equality that he feels should exist between the races, and he is strongly influenced by the historic figures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the radical John Brown to whom he gives much of his wealth to buy arms for an uprising at Harper’s Ferry.
The novel takes us through several segments of his life in which he develops from the high-minded 19-year-old to the day he returns home to his family, a broken man. We follow him step by step as he meets Grace, a slave for whom he develops a passion and who is one of the strongest characters in the book, starts a school on a plantation in Mississippi where a northerner tries to bring in a profitable crop of cotton with former slaves (called “contraband”), and finally to a hospital in Washington, a very ill and terribly disillusioned man.
Brooks’ descriptions of the battles, the hospital, the lack of medical knowledge, and the fate of the wounded soldiers are harrowing. March has learned the truth about man’s inhumanity to man, the cruelty towards the former slaves by both the Confederate soldiers and the Union soldiers, the violence and bloodshed, the waste of lives. His belief in the nobility of man working towards the goal of peace and harmony is utterly destroyed. He also learns that a man’s best intentions can often lead to devastation that cause him regret, guilt, and a self-loathing based on his inability to achieve his lofty goals and an attempt at self-preservation. He thinks of himself as a coward and a sinner.
This theme of innocence versus experience is a common focal point in literature where a young and idealistic person becomes crushed by the horrors he encounters on his walk through life. The second part of the book is told from Marmee’s point of view, mainly through the letters they write each other, the carefree accounts each shares in an attempt to shield the other from the truth. She realizes that one must continue on one step at a time and that people have to learn to survive in the midst and aftermath of great tragedy. Marmee faces the future with Mr. March with strength; Mr. March faces it “with the ghosts of the dead” emblazoned in his memory.