Monday, 18 February 2008

March by Geraldine Brooks

A brilliant novel about Mr. March, the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. March is a dreamer and idealist thrust into the brutal action of the Civil War. As the year unfolds, he writes loving letters to his family while shielding them -- but not us -- from the worst of his war experiences. To himself and us, ruminates on his early life and shares his moral concerns.

The book would be a great story even without the Little Women connection, but it does manage to flesh out the character of Marmee who, as Brooks' mother noted, was too good to be true in the original. The other characters are there, too, the little women, Laurie, the neighbour boy and his tutor Mr. Brooks, Aunt March and others, peripheral to the story, but bringing a pleasing sense of recognition, something like greeting old, childhood friends.

March is based on Bronson Alcott and, in his reminisces we meet the New England intelligentsia/abolitionist community, the Thoreaus and the Emersons, encounter passengers on the UnderGround Railroad and get taken in by John Brown's schemes.

Did you know that Henry Thoreau invented an improved pencil? And I had certainly never heard of "contraband," slaves who came under Union control and fought for the Union or worked the plantations for pay under Northern lessees. I love novels like this, where you can trust the history because what isn't true is set out by the author.

And somehow it pleases me to find the Brooks is married to Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes, and one of my favourite writers.

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