Cbr11bingo Birthday. Geraldine Brooks was born September 14, 1955. Bingo #9
Geraldine Brooks’ 2006 novel March is a brilliant Civil War novel that imagines the lives of Marmee and Mr. March, the parents of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Brooks, a journalist by trade, has a history of writing thoroughly researched and highly imaginative fiction. I’ve read most of her novels and they have all been superb. Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing and People of the Book are all fantastic. I know I read March not too long after it came out, but I honestly couldn’t remember much about it other than that I really enjoyed it, and I have to say that the second time around, I appreciate it even more. In the Afterward, Brooks, born and raised in Australia, recalls reading Little Women as a child. At the end of that novel, Alcott has her characters evaluate how they have changed over the course of the year that their father served as a chaplain to the Union Army in the Civil War. In March, Brooks imagines how the girls’ parents changed over that time.
Brooks invents a past for Marmee and Mr. March, and for inspiration she turned to the Alcott family itself, particularly patriarch Amos Bronson Alcott, famous for his intellectual rigor, abolitionism, vegetarianism and zealous idealism. The first half of the book is narrated by March as he serves as a chaplain during the Civil War. In his letters to Marmee and his little women, he is careful not to reveal the horrors and hardships of the war, but readers see in gory detail what the front lines of battle are like. March has just witnessed a man he was trying to save drown while all around him are the bodies and parts of bodies of the men from his company. As he and other survivors retreat toward a house not far from the battle field, March realizes he has been here before.
The novel switches from March’s present, as a 39-year-old trying and often failing to minister to the men in his company, to the past. Brooks’ Mr. March as a young man left Massachusetts to live the itinerant life of a peddler in the South. Through patience and hard work, he was able to make himself a fortune over time, but during that time he was also exposed to the life of the wealthy southern planter and the life of the slave. March was already an abolitionist and a strict vegetarian, but he finds himself seduced by the luxurious life of the slave owner Mr. Clement who has a vast library and enjoys intellectual discussions with young March. March also finds himself drawn to Mr. Clements’ house slave Grace. The circumstances of March leaving the Clementses are deeply disturbing but highlight the evil and immorality of slavery and cause March to hate himself for not doing more to help. March and Grace’s paths will cross again in the war, arousing both his painful memories and his admiration and desire for Grace.
As the war continues, and March’s role in it changes, he faithfully if not truthfully writes to Marmee and his daughters of his life as chaplain. For the reader, he recalls meeting and marrying Marmee. The young peddler tired of his life on the road, moved back to Massachusetts and became a minister. Through his esteemed friend he met Marmee and fell in love almost immediately. Marmee was not just beautiful but intelligent, fierce and at times fiery. She was an ardent abolitionist who managed a station of the Underground Railroad from her father’s home. March and Marmee socialized in a circle of progressive thinkers that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (the Alcotts actually did socialize with these people). They also became involved with militant abolitionist John Brown, with March helping to finance Brown’s radical activities. It was due to this selfless support of the abolition movement, as well as the March family’s other generosities, that they found themselves impoverished.
As the war continues, March tries to help the soldiers and the freed slaves that he finds under his charge, but time and again he meets with what he considers failures. Brooks does an outstanding job of describing the horrors of the Civil War as well as showing March’s decline in health — both mental and physical. When he ends up in a Washington, DC, hospital where Grace Clement is a nurse, his worlds collide and Marmee takes over the narration. The reader learns that March frequently misunderstood what Marmee really wanted from him and from life. She is able to figure out quite a lot of what March never told her. The rest of the novel deals with these characters learning to speak honestly, to forgive, and to accept their own limitations.
In addition to this brilliantly conceived and beautifully told personal story of March, Marmee and Grace, Brooks provides an enormous amount of factual information about both the Civil War and the abolition movement. This would be a great novel for high school students to read during the Civil War unit (instead of The Red Badge of Courage, for example). The final scene between March and Grace is superb and the overall message from it is incredibly timely. It is on point for white people who recognize the racism of the US and want to be allies.
March would be a great choice for a variety of bingo squares. In addition to birthday, it won the Pulitzer Prize (Award Winner), is historical fiction (History Schmistory) and is a “Remix” of Little Women.