Friday, September 23, 2011

March by Geraldine Brooks

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, March is the Australian writer’s second novel. It’s set in the American Civil War, and is ostensibly based on a character, March, from Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel Little Women. In Little Women, March is the girls’ father, who volunteers to go south and serve as an army chaplain. He is a marginal figure in Alcott's book, being away in the fighting for some time. The actual model Brooks used for March is the historical figure of Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father. He was one of the leaders of the Transcendentalists, who cultivated the belief that God is revealed in nature and in human beings, if they follow the right principles. The Transcendentalists championed pacifism, vegetarianism, women’s rights, and the kind of education in which a natural thirst for knowledge is cultivated and facts are not crammed into young minds.

Brooks is an accomplished writer, and she fluently depicts March’s sensitivity to his physical surroundings and to his companions. In Virginia, he is removed from his first post as an army chaplain, since his faith is too humanist to give solid comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers. Not believing in a literal hell, or in Christ as God, his view of humanity bumbling and stumbling itself into a mess does not sit well with the men or with his superiors. Critics of the book have found fault with March’s excessive self-flagellation, with his despair at witnessing pillaging and violence on the side of the Northern soldiers as well as on the Southern side. In contrast, the character of March in Little Women, although undeveloped, is one of stability and purpose – a father who steadies his wife and girls through their trials and sorrows.

March is transferred to a plantation whose absent owner supports the North and has leased the land to a Northerner come down to make a profit. March is to help by teaching the former slave children. The plantation has been ransacked both by the Union Army and local bands of raiders, who live on what they can pillage. Brooks’ depiction of the final devastation that takes place on the plantation reads like something out of Rwanda, and the source she cites does not match the unspeakable cruelty and horror which Brooks presents as commonplace. (When this kind of violence did occur, her source relates how the local residents rose up and administered their own justice after the sheriff and his men apprehended the assailants.) In Brooks’ landscape, there is no sheriff, and evil is done with impunity.

Brooks’ literary license ends up as an assault on the principles which Bronson Alcott propagated in his writings and teachings. An assault, because there is no surcease - there is no “balm in Gilead” found in the novel’s experience. Here history is not “unveiled” simply through engrossing characters and vivid landscapes. March, a broken man, or one who was never truly whole, creeps back to his family’s side, without hope and without redemption. This may be Brooks’ world, but it is not everyone’s.

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