March, Ms. Brooks’ take-off on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006. I found it to be an odd little novel. Ms. Brooks takes a fictional character, Mr. March, father to the “little women”, and places him and his family in a real world with people who actually lived in Concord near the Alcott family, namely the Emersons and the Thoreaus. Then, the author sends March off to war, just as he is off “where the fighting is” in Little Women, and she tells most of the story from his point of view. It’s an odd point of view, that of a vegetarian, abolitionist, peace-loving philosopher-soldier-chaplain caught in the midst of horror and insoluble moral dilemmas.
The tone and voice of the novel matched the rather stilted nineteenth century style of Louisa May Alcott’s original novel, and while this style of writing was a little disconcerting at first, I soon began to like it and to feel transported to the Civil War era when men wrote flowery, loquacious letters to their loved ones.
“I have now traveled so far south that I find myself come to a place where our common expression ‘white as snow’ has no useful meaning. Here, one who wishes his words to make plain sense had better say ‘white as cotton.’ I will not say that I find the landscape lovely. We go on through Nature to God, and my Northern eye misses the grandeur that eases that ascent. I yearn for mountains, or at least for the gentle ridges of Massachusetts; the sweet folds and furrows that offer the refreshment of a new vista as each gap or summit is obtained. Here all is obvious, a song upon a single note. One wakes and falls asleep to a green sameness, the sun like a pale egg yolk, peering down from a white sky.”
March is an adult novel, and in it, the “perfect” Marmee and the idealized Father March become real flesh and blood people with faults and passions and uncertainties and doubts about their own choices and abilities. March, in particular, is a man who finds himself in a place and time where his ideals and moral philosophy are tested and found wanting. And still he and his wife, the Marmee of Little Women, come through the fires of war and suffering with admirable character and fortitude. There is much to respect in Geraldine Brooks’ March, even though Bronson Alcott and I would find much to disagree about in real life. (I’m not a transcendentalist nor a utopian nor a vegetarian nor a pacifist nor a Unitarian/free thinker.)
The novel does a good job of bringing out the impracticality and impracticability of March’s/Alcott’s beliefs and still making him admirable as a man who tried, at least in the fictional version of his story, to remain true to his principles. I think all of us, as we age, feel the tension between the youthful ideals that we still believe to be right and good and true and the imperfection and fallenness of the world we actually inhabit, including the impossibility of remaining pure in our own execution and implementation of those ideals and principles to which we bear allegiance.
“You are not God. You do not determine the outcome. The outcome is not the point. . . The point is the effort. That you, believing what you believed—what you sincerely believed, including the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’–acted upon it. To believe, to act, and to have events confound you–I grant you, that is hard to bear. But to believe, and not to act, or to act in a way that every fiber of your soul held was wrong–how can you not see? That is what would have been reprehensible.”
“[T]here is only one thing to do when we fall, and that is to get up, and go on with the life that is set in front of us, and try and do the good of which our hands are capable for all the people who come in our way.”