by Geraldine Brooks
Reader’s Choice 1/07
I was familiar with Australian-born Geraldine Brooks from two earlier books, the novel “Year of Wonders” concerning the townspeople in Derbyshire, England in 1665 when the plague epidemic struck and the non-fiction “Nine Parts of Desire” that examines the daily lives of Muslim women. “What”, I wondered, “is the former Wall Street Journal correspondent doing writing a book about one man’s experience during the American Civil War?”
Well, Brooks’ husband, writer Tony Horowitz, is a Civil War buff—an interest that she has not shared with him throughout most of their marriage. She says, if “offered the choice between a trip to the dentist and another midsummer reenactment, it’d be a hard call”. But in the ‘90’s they moved to rural Virginia where reminders of the Civil War were all around their house and she began to imagine the effect this disaster had on the former residents of her town. In an interview she apologizes to Horowitz for referring to him as a Civil War bore and “for all the times I refused to get out of the car at Antietam or whined about the heat at Gettysburg . . . and all the moaning over weekend expeditions devoted to events such as the interment of Stonewall Jackson’s horse. I’m not sure when or where it happened”, she tells us, “but on a sunken road somewhere, I finally saw the light.”
And so, she has written a luminous work of fiction that springs from Louisa May Alcott’s classic, “Little Women”. Brooks imagines the life of March, the absent father of the four young girls, who has left their house in Concord, Massachusetts to head south and offer his services as chaplain for the Union soldiers in the Civil War. His presence reverberates again later on in the story when their mother leaves home to minister to him in a hospital for those wounded in the war. Brooks started with only these pieces of information about him and has artfully filled in the details and woven a tale of a sensitive, thinking man confronted by the horrific events of those years. Since Louisa May Alcott’s tale was modeled on her own family life, March was modeled on Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, who left her mother and their four girls to do his part in the war. From the letters and journals of Mr. Alcott, Brooks had access to “as complete a record of a Victorian man’s interior life as any you could find”.
Bronson Alcott’s writings also talked about his extensive interactions with influential contemporaries from the Northeast and Brooks embellishes upon them. Like his real counterpart, Mr. March socializes with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He lends New York activist John Brown money—a decision he comes to regret as Brown just uses the money for guns and arms for his growing anti-slavery rebellion and never repays a cent of it. That decision causes the financial problems for his wife and four daughters that is central to “Little Women”.
"March" begins with a gruesomely detailed account of a battle with the understated chapter title of “Virginia is a Hard Road”. Graphic details of the death and destruction in that one episode may frighten some readers away but Brooks makes it clear that her book will bear some hard truths. Her stunning writing makes this story an atmospheric and haunting one. The journalist in her makes her seek out the details that convey the place and time she shows us, on whatever side of the globe.