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Merle

Merle

March - Geraldine Brooks I enjoyed Little Women as a child, but picked up this book not for that reason but because I loved Caleb’s Crossing and wanted to read something else by Brooks. Focusing on the wartime experiences of Mr. March, the father from Little Women, this is a decent novel about the American Civil War, but many, many books have been written about that time period and to me this one did not really stand out.

The plot is reasonably interesting, and alternates between the war and flashbacks to March’s prior life. It has a rather uneasy relationship with the source material. At times, Brooks is faithful to the story in Little Women and includes little “Easter eggs” for the readers: a brief sentence from the source material (like Aunt March’s offer to adopt one of the girls when the family loses its fortune) becomes a full-fledged scene here, while brief references are made here to events that are important in Little Women (like Jo’s selling her hair). But Brooks bases Mr. March in large part on Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, and this extends to revising the original cast to look more like the Alcotts. In some ways the Alcotts were more colorful than the Marches and so I can see the appeal: in Brooks’s version, the family runs a station on the Underground Railroad; they’re vegetarians/vegans; they socialize with the Emersons and Thoreaus. And Brooks makes a point of making Mrs. March less idealized, but does so by giving her an explosive temper, inconsistent with the original character. So while I don’t quite agree with those who believe the Little Women connection is merely a publicity hook for Brooks’s Civil War novel, I do see where they’re coming from.

What dragged this book down for me, though, was its generic Civil War setting. If you’ve read other Civil War books, you’ll recognize the overcrowded field hospitals and unsanitary amputations; the Union soldiers smashing up fancy Southern homes; the learned, aristocratic plantation owners who mistreat their slaves; the supposedly shocking scenes where Union soldiers turn out to be just as racist as their Confederate counterparts; and so on. It’s all been done. Brooks does find one original subject--the Northerners who took over and ran plantations during the war--and this segment was one of the most interesting parts of the book.

The characterization is good enough. March is mostly believable as a liberal chaplain. I liked the way Brooks shows that he and Marmee are perhaps not quite as openminded as they try to be and reveals the misunderstandings in their marriage. Grace, the educated slave, is perhaps not as interesting as intended; I found the rather unsavory but non-evil Ethan Canning the most interesting of the supporting cast. The first-person voices are mostly convincing and of course Brooks writes well.

Overall, this is a decent book. I didn’t enjoy it as much as perhaps I might have if I hadn't grown up reading Civil War books, or if I had loved Little Women. And I don’t understand how it won a Pulitzer. But it is a perfectly adequate piece of writing and if you haven’t read much about the Civil War, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.