Book 1: March – Geraldine Brooks

A co-worker recommended March and prior to reading it I knew only that it detailed the mostly absent character of Mr. March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  Having finished the novel I realize it is a superb piece of ‘fan-fiction’ and well deserving of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

Once I realized March received a Pulitzer (about half-way through the novel) I spoke with my co-worker and she also mentioned not knowing it was a Pulitzer when she started reading it, but once she finished she felt it was a perfect Pulitzer and I couldn’t agree more.  I looked up what distinguishes a Pulitzer and Wikipedia (yes I used our friendly resource) states a Pulitzer Prize for fiction is awarded “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” And having just finished March, I believe perfect Pulitzer fits. I’m not referring to the writing itself, as who am I to judge, but instead to the story. Brooks wrote about a time and a place which is so uniquely American and about characters which for a long time were Americana embodied.

In the afterward, Brooks states “Alcott’s story is concerned with the way a year lived at the edge of war has worked changes in the characters of the little women, but what war has done to March himself is left unstated.” And although she took quite a few liberties, Brooks created a beautiful novel which should be heralded as a great work of ‘fan-fiction’ (it’s better than a lot of the Jane Austen ‘fan-fiction’ I’ve read recently) and as a great work of literature for its ingenious way of combining multiple true stories.

Brooks takes everything taboo during the time period and brings it to the forefront in a very tasteful manner.  She takes slavery, incest, the Civil War, infidelity, interracial relationships, education of women and the horrors of war among other things and talks about them in beautiful relatively easy-to-read prose. She combines all of this with the famous people (Thoreau, Emerson, John Brown, to name a few) the Alcott’s or their relations knew creating even more credibility in reality.

However, don’t get me completely wrong, there were some portions of the book that were a bit underwhelming.  At some points I felt Mr. March as a character was a bit too difficult to sympathize with, especially towards the end of the novel during his ‘woe-is-me’ phase.  And although it was abrupt and somewhat necessary to move the story forward I was grateful Brooks switched narrators to Marmee. In addition, I appreciated Grace’s character as an antithesis of March’s—her survival, her perseverance and her sheer will to change the world provided a relief for much of March’s philosophizing.  The myriad challenges she faced created a strong female character with opinions and an attitude which was well above her station.

Although there is much more that could be discussed, I’ll leave it up to you to go read the novel if you’re interested.  Perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about the novel is that I don’t like learning about American history or wars, but the novel created a sense of wonder and mystery about both which at some points made me think I should learn more about the Civil War.

Recommendation: READ IT! Whether you’ve read the Alcott novels or not, it’s a very well written and fascinating novel that deals with an interesting part of US history in a somewhat unusual way.

Opening Line: October 21, 1861 This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky. A dipping sun gilded and brazed each raveling edge as if the firmament were threaded through with precious filaments.

Closing Line: As she turned the screw to adjust the flame, light flared. For an instant, everything was bathed in radiance. (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from March by Geraldine Brooks: 

“Manners matter in the South; I had met even field hands, half-naked and barefoot, who comported themselves with more grace than the average educated New Englander.” (12)

“I’ve always imagined paradise as something like a library.” (17)

“To me, the divine is that immanence which is apparent in the great glories of Nature and in the small kindnesses of the human heart.” (42)

“Angry women generally cannot be said to show to advantage, and to see that lovely face so distorted by such a scowl as it now wore was immensely shocking to me.” (84)

“It will take some considerable time to make the Negro understand that to be emancipated does not mean to be liberated from toil, which has been the lot of all the children of God since Adam and Eve were cast from Eden. Why, some of them here seemed to apprehend that Mr. Lincoln meant to carry them all in state on up to Boston, and give them white men for their slaves!” (109)”

“My uncle had a fine library, and he allowed Jo great liberty, letting her build railways and bridges even with his rare volumes. When she wearied of this, he would fetch down an interesting old folio with lavish plates and beckon her onto his lap.” (118)

Spring here is not spring as we know it: the cool, wet promise of snowmelt and frozen ground yielding into mud. Here, a sudden heat falls out of the sky one day, and one breathes and moves as if deposited inside a kettle of soup. In response, vegetation shoots out of the ground with irresistible force. Just when the body wishes to slow down and give way to lassitude, it must instead accelerate, for the challenge is to keep human labor on a pace with the work of Nature, or else be overrun by the excesses of her abundance.” (146)

“It came to me that if the fortunes of this war do not turn, then maybe the city is destined to be no more than this: ruins, merely, sinking back into the swamp; the shards of an optimistic moment when a few dreamers believed you could build a nation upon ideas such as liberty and equality.” (215)

“How easy it was to give out morsels of wise counsel, and yet how hard to act on them.” (246)

“You go on. You set one foot in front of the other, and if a thin voice cries out, somewhere behind you, you pretend not to hear, and keep going.” (270)

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4 thoughts on “Book 1: March – Geraldine Brooks

    • Thanks for the comment! It was a good book, and if you love the Marches – it’s definitely worth the read. It was definitely strange though to compare it to some of the other ‘fan-fiction’ out there, although I’m fairly certain Brooks wouldn’t consider it fan-fiction.

  1. I am reading Brook’s ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ at the moment representing another period and location in American history, it is an interesting read. In much of this book the narrator is looking back from the present, a little frustrating, I enjoyed it more when her characters actually came to life in the present than when they reflected on the past. I must add ‘March’ to the list! Thanks for the comprehensive review.

    • Thanks for the comment! I haven’t heard of anything else by Brooks, so I’ll have to check it out. I’m starting to really appreciate flashbacks as a mode of narrative. It seems the last three novels I’ve read have been based on flashbacks and they’re each unique, if sometimes it doesn’t work as well as others.

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