I respected Geraldine Brooks as a journalist and a writer of non-fiction for many years before she started writing novels and I’ve long meant to read this novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006.
Having only recently re-read Little Women for the first time in many years, this seemed the ideal time to tackle a book which draws on that novel for its inspiration. Brooks notes in the afterward to the novel that Little Women is concerned with the way a year lived at the edge of war worked changes in the characters of the March sisters, but what war did to their father was left unstated. March is the story of the effect of war on a man who experiences it first-hand.
I have the benefit of two factors in reading this book. Firstly, while I have a great affection for Little Women, I have no particular investment in Mr March having a particular character or personality. He is a shadowy figure in Alcott’s novel, being absent for most of it and even when he returns from the war, the focus of the novel is not on him. Secondly, I know little about the American Civil War – the fact that I describe it in that way shows that I am not American. It is not part of my history or the history of my country. This means that I bring no pre-conceptions to a narrative in which that war is central.
While I lack knowledge of the historical events to which Brooks refers in the course of the novel, I expect that Brooks did her research well. She discloses her sources in the afterword and also discusses the license she took in dealing with some of the events referred to in the novel. Brooks based Mr March on Louisa May Alcott’s father Branson Alcott: an entirely acceptable approach given that Alcott drew extensively on her family circumstances in writing Little Women. So the background as a pedlar in the south, the life in Concord, the abolitionist views and activities, the friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the veganism – all aspects of Mr March’s life – are directly drawn from Branson Alcott’s life.
However, there is no suggestion that Brooks based the character of Marmee on Alcott’s mother. In the afterward Brooks writes that she first read Little Women at her mother’s suggestion when she was ten years old. Her mother counseled her to take it with a grain of salt, telling her that “nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee”. So Marmee, incredibly saintly in Little Women is developed in a way which makes her very human and very flawed. This may shock some readers, but I thought that it was plausible, particularly given the scene in Little Women in which Marmee discloses to Jo that she has a bad temper which she needs to work hard to control.
There’s a lot I loved about this book. Brooks has written a novel which does not hold back in its description of the horrors of war without being preachy. She gives historical information without resorting to tedious information dumps or obvious “as you know, Bob” moments. She creates a sense of time and place without overdoing the archaic vocabulary in either the dialogue or the descriptive language. In addition, Brooks ties the novel to the events of Little Women in a natural and unforced way. The letters which Mr March writes home to his family are particularly resonant of Alcott's style.
It’s not a perfect novel. There were a few incidents which strained credulity, and those more familiar with the background and events of the Civil War would probably find some nits to pick. However, the novel made me think and it made me cry. It will also, I think, affect the way in which I approach Little Women in future. This is a good thing. After my recent re-reading of Little Women, I was a little overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of its lessons on morality. Now, I will be more aware of the context in which it was written and will think almost as much about the absent Mr March as about his daughters.