My first act as a Madisonian was to get myself a library card. The first thing I checked out from the Madison Public Library was March by Geraldine Brooks. March is a historical fiction novel that reimagines the character of Mr. March from Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women. The story follows March’s experiences as a Civil War chaplain, then as a teacher to freed slaves on a Southern plantation. March also spends time reflecting on how he came to be in his position — first looking at his life as a traveling salesman, then merchant in Concord, then husband and father. He also is tormented by the long-ignored infatuation he has with a slave woman, Grace, that he met while he was a salesman.
Brooks creates as very complete characterization of March, which she based on clues from Little Women as well as the journals of Louisa May’s father, Bronson Alcott. March is an idealist, but lacks any sense about the world and how it works. He craves to be a man of moral certainty, but his refusal to see the world as it is makes him vulnerable to those around him and a painful character to watch exist in the real world. The story follows his struggle to come to grips with these issues within the context of the Civil War.
Although I liked most of the story, my favorite part of the book is when it abruptly changes narrators in the second half. While March is gravely ill and unconscious in the hospital (per the plot of Little Women), the story is narrated by his wife Marmee. While this is a necessity of the plot Brooks is writing around, it also becomes an effective device to portray the pain miscommunication and lack of communication in relationships can cause. One of the first events Marmee reflects on is March’s decision to join the Union army as a chaplain. She recalls:
When I saw him stand up on that tree stump in the cattle ground, surrounded by the avid faces of the young, I knew that as he spoke to them, he was thinking that it was unfair to lay the burden so fully on that innocent generation. I could see the look of love for those boys in his eyes, and I saw also that the moment was carrying him away. I raised my arms to him, imploring him not to say the works that I knew were forming in his mind. He looked me full in the face, he say my tears, and he ignored them and did as he pleased. And then I in my turn has to pretend to be pleased by my hero of a husband. When he stepped down, and came to me, I could not speak. I took his hand and dug my nails into the flesh of it, wanting to hurt him for the hurt he was inflicting upon me.
This recollection is in stark contrast to the way March remembered the very same incident a few chapters earlier. Through his eyes, the moment he decided to join the army was one supported by his family and friends:
I paused to wipe the sweat from my forehand, and I looked over the bent heads, and saw Marmee, her head held high, looking straight at me with tears in her eyes. She had heard a truth in my words and recognized my intention even before I knew it myself. We held each other’s gaze for a long moment. I read the question in her face as clearly as if she shouted aloud, and I nodded. I had said “we will go.” She knew, even before I did, that I meant it. … I stepped down from the stump, and made my way through the press to Marmee. She was so proud of me that she could not speak, but only took my hand and clasped it, the pressure of her grip hard as a man’s.
I love contrasting these two passages, because I think it illustrates the way Brooks reimagines Mr. March not only through his own eyes, but also through the way others see him. Here, we see how he is an idealist, but also how his idealism often blinds him to the needs and wants of those he loves. The passage also shows the way we can hurt those we are closest to without even trying. At first, I liked the book but didn’t really think it was anything spectacular; after the narrator changed, the book took on an entirely different depth and really did more to reframe and reimagine Little Women. If you’re a fan of Little Women, or like the idea of reinterpreting and expanding on holes of previous novels, I think this is a good book to read.
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