Fleshing out the March patriarch

Heller McAlpin is a regular contributor to Book Review.

"Little WOMEN" is big this year. There's a new musical on Broadway, as well as a new Library of America edition of Louisa May Alcott's entire March family trilogy in one appealingly compact, black-jacketed volume. Overshadowing both is Geraldine Brooks' gripping new historical novel about the March family patriarch at war.

Building on what Brooks calls the "scaffolding" of "Little Women," "March" considers the costs -- physical, personal, moral, economic -- of war in general and the Civil War in particular. Brooks' hero, an idealist whose moral certitudes are deeply shaken by his experiences in the South, comments: "If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it."

Like Sena Jeter Naslund's "Ahab's Wife" and Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea," Brooks' "March" could crassly be called a spinoff; it imagines a missing side of a beloved classic. Alcott's "Little Women" shows the daughters coping at home when Father, an abolitionist, goes South as a Union Army chaplain. Brooks fills us in on Mr. March's activities during that life-altering year. Like the Naslund and Rhys novels, it is a fully realized, compelling work of fiction in its own right.

"March" also falls into another literary category that is often considered derivative: historical fiction. At its best -- and "March" qualifies -- historical fiction alters our understanding of an era, enabling us to see it, and ourselves, afresh. In the formal, delicate cadences of 19th century syntax, Brooks' second novel synthesizes a taut plot, vivid characters and provocative issues.

Brooks is no stranger to research. In addition to her first novel, "Year of Wonders," about the plague of 1666, she is known for her study of Islamic women, "Nine Parts of Desire." In "March," she once again spins magic from reams of primary source material -- some of which she helpfully discusses in an afterword nearly as fascinating as her book. This includes research about the Battle of Ball's Bluff (chosen for its proximity to Brooks' Virginia home), the underground railroad, John Brown, the woeful inadequacy of battlefield medicine and the plight of "contraband" -- former slaves behind Union lines.

Alcott's father, A. Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), is the model for Mr. March in both "Little Women" and "March" (although Brooks has shaved two decades off his age rather than send a sexagenarian off to war).

In both her novel and a Jan. 10 New Yorker article titled "Orpheus at the Plough," Brooks strives to resurrect the reputation of Bronson Alcott, maligned by biographers as a ne'er-do-well who sponged off his successful daughter. She makes a case for him as an innovative educator who initiated several lasting changes in pedagogy -- introducing recess and physical education and eliminating recitation and corporal punishment. He was also an influential Transcendentalist philosopher, abolitionist, close friend of fellow Concordians Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and an extreme vegetarian who farmed and chopped wood to help support his family. In addition, Bronson Alcott was an early proponent of coeducation, desegregation and women's rights.

If this sounds like standard politically correct fare, it was radical in its time. The reader needs to keep this in mind when reading "March": The sensibilities of Brooks' characters, particularly regarding racial issues, are deliberately anachronistic. To this end, Louisa May Alcott's angelic Marmee gets a feminist makeover. In a moment of anger she sputters, "You call our girls your 'little women'; well, I am your belittled woman." There is nothing insipid about Brooks' Marmee, who is fiery, temperamental, passionate and free-spirited enough to have sex with her husband even before their engagement.

From the opening, Brooks sets up a contrast between the sanitized picture March paints in letters home and the brutality of the battlefront. This is his first deception. More serious is his attachment to an elegant slave named Grace, whom he encounters at three turning points in his life. Brooks heightens the moral stakes by creating this love triangle among characters for whom even entertaining adulterous longings is "a grave transgression."

March's first-person narrative alternates deftly between the war and equally riveting scenes from his Concord days. He survives the desperate rout of the Union Army at Ball's Bluff by swimming across a river. He lands, to his surprise, at a place he knew 20 years earlier as a penniless Connecticut peddler of notions and books. It is on this thriving Virginia estate that March first meets the entrancing, educated house slave Grace. Initially, March is naively seduced by Southern manners and "the unfettered life of the mind" available to slave owners freed from "routine toils." He happily accepts Augustus Clement's invitation to stay and enjoy his library in exchange for stimulating conversation.

The young peddler soon comes to regret his brief "moral blindness." With Grace's collusion, he defies the outrageous law against teaching slaves to read by clandestinely instructing the cook's particularly bright little girl. When their transgression is discovered, Grace is savagely whipped, a punishment March is forced to witness with Clement's other slaves.

When March lands back at Clement's ruined plantation during the war, Grace is the only slave remaining. Their second encounter is as charged as the first, but this time it is March who is punished for it. He is reassigned to teach the contraband at another decimated plantation. There he finds the former slaves being worked as relentlessly as ever by an Illinois businessman desperate to turn a profit from his one-year investment. Faced with shortages, disease, rampant bigotry and rebel guerrilla attacks, March's convictions and health are sorely tested.

"March" is a beautifully wrought story about how war dashes ideals, unhinges moral certainties and drives a wedge of bitter experience and unspeakable memories between husband and wife. March must find a way to reconcile his comfort with others' suffering and live with his guilt and shame. Marmee tries to bolster her hospitalized, "inconstant, ruined dreamer" by reminding him: "The point is the effort" -- acting on one's beliefs and focusing on "the sparks of hope that still flickered, here and there, for the greater cause." Geraldine Brooks' novel is a moving and inspirational tour de force. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°