Sunday, February 22, 2009

"March" by Geraldine Brooks

Summary: Mr. March, a chaplain serving the Union forces in the Civil War, describes his time working to serve soldiers and assisting former slaves. As he does, he recounts his experiences as a younger man. The novel is Brooks' re-imagining of the absent Mr. March, the father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.

Musings: This is my third book recently to address the subject of slavery, although I had not purposefully set out with that topic in mind. In a way, March serves to complete a triumvirate of viewpoints on the subject of American slavery. First, Octavian Nothing described a young slave boy's awareness of bondage; A Mercy centered on various slave women's experiences, and March addresses slavery from the view of a white abolitionist. Although each book covers a distinctly different time period (A Mercy in the early days of slavery in what would be America, Octavian in the American Revolution, and March in the Civil War), many of the same themes are apparent. One of the most notable is the hypocrisy and uncertainty of the country. Although whites in all three books struggled with the fairness of slavery, they also have difficulty instituting their ideals into practical reality. In March, Mr. March finds his fervent abolitionist ideals challenged even by the Union forces, which are unprepared to make the sacrifices (both personally and materially) to allow free slaves to exist as free people.

Mr. March is an admirable character, and he makes the right choices even when the other characters in the book do not. Throughout the first part of the book, I found his character and others somewhat flat. They seemed to fit ideals that are comforting, but perhaps not realistic. Mr. March does not sway in his abolitionist beliefs, even when others do. He is, in turn, rewarded by eager former slaves who are forever grateful for what he has given them. I think I would have found the story more convincing if March had made selfish choices and paid the price (he claims he did, but I don't know if I agree), or if March had met freed slaves who were not just profusely grateful for any small kindness, but expected more.

Fortunately, my concerns about character were alleviated somewhat in the final chapters of the book which give insight into the thoughts of Mr. March's wife, Marmee, and a former slave he had been acquainted with, Grace. Marmee exposes Mr. March's idealism as perhaps less heroic than he made it out to be throughout the part of the book told from his point of view. For me, Grace has the most effective line when she tells Mr. March, who is insisting he continue to help Grace and other freed slaves, "We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you will ever be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people must learn to manage its own destiny" (268).

Because the novel is a retelling of Little Women, I think being familiar with Alcott's novel is a big help. I read Little Women a very long time ago, and although I remembered some basic plot points, I imagine many details in Brooks' version were lost on me.

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