Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

March is a Pulitzer Prize winning story about CPT March, the father of the March family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It covers the year he spent in the Union Army during the Civil War, so it’s dark and heavy, but it’s also imaginative and well-researched and doesn’t shy away from tough topics and grim historical realities.

I read March as part of the 2020 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. June’s assignment was to read a novel with a strong father figure because Father’s Day is in June (happy belated Father’s Day to all the dads out there!). Who better to read about than the father of the March family?

It’s been a long time since I read Little Women, but I believe the dad’s role was limited – he was away at war, he sent letters, he was gravely ill in Washington DC, and then he came home. This gave the author a lot of blank canvas to work with and she painted a very creative portrait. Interestingly, she used Louisa May Alcott’s father for inspiration. He was considered to be a radical, even establishing his own Utopian society. March isn’t quite a radical, but he was very progressive – a passionate abolitionist, vegetarian minister who created his own version of Christianity. And, like Alcott’s father, he was friends with fellow Concord residents Emerson and Thoreau.

The book opens with a grim scene that sets the tone for the rest of the book. March (I don’t think the author gave him a first name) was a Union Army chaplain and describes a battle in which his unit is routed in bloody fashion. These were the early days of the Civil War when the chaos was amplified by inexperience. From there, we learn about March’s life and inner thoughts through letters to his family, reminiscences, and descriptions of “current” events. He’s such a rigidly principled man that he doesn’t mesh with the men he’s supposed to be ministering to, leading to his relief from duty. He is then assigned to teach newly freed former slaves how to read and write, an assignment that ends in tragedy and sends March to a DC hospital, where he nearly dies. As I said, this is not light fare.

Every new circumstance provides an opportunity for the author to make a thoughtful point about the complexities of the times. She especially hammers home the atrocities of slavery, through truly heartbreaking scenes. This included a chilling example of how one slave owner justified slavery and lulled a young, naive March into complacency about it.

Also noteworthy was that the author used this opportunity to further develop Marmee, the mother in Little Women. She was painted as a woman mostly ruled by emotions, especially a sometimes violent temper. She was really inconsistent in her opinions – fiercely opposed to slavery but also opposed to the violence that was necessary to end it. I suppose it added some complexity to her character and her relationship with March, but I ended up not liking her very much.

March is creatively imagined and very well written but it’s a barrage of darkness with very little light. It needed some lighter scenes to balance out the heaviness. Maybe that’s too much to ask of story set during the Civil War? If I was to grade it, I’d give it an A- for story telling and a C for balance of tone.

Did you read a book with a strong father figure this month? Tell us all about it!

Reminder – July’s challenge is to read a nonfiction book about sports or athletes. The stupid virus took the Summer Olympics away from us this year, so we’ll just have to get our dose of athletic greatness from books!

4 thoughts on “Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

  1. To be fair upfront, I never read Little Women. Blame it on my Indiana public education through high school… With that said, I was excited to read March based upon the book sleeve and reviews. Wow, was I disappointed!

    The biggest challenge I faced when reading this book was seeing the narrator, Mr. March, as a credible story teller. So much of the story just didn’t fit for me and it all seem too contrived. Contrived in the sense that it came across that the author wanted to hit upon not only the complexities of the times then but even more so, the complexities of our times. Let’s see, some of the hot topics touched upon in this book: race relations (obviously), ethical treatment of animals, women’s education, sex, formal religion, corporeal punishment, and the environmental impact of industry just to name a few that I recall. Mr. March even discusses re-designing his house to make it more of the open concept instead of closed rooms. Really? In the 1860s? I think the author must have been watching HGTV on the side while on breaks from her writing. I was waiting for the $15 an hour minimum wage to be introduced until I realized she wrote the book before that was a popular anthem. And of course, our self-righteous Mr. March is on the current politically correct side of all of these aforementioned complexities. How convenient. Okay, there is no “side” on the open concept of a house but he was definitely on what sells, at least on HGTV. I did not know until I read your post that this book won the Pulitzer Prize. If this book is any indicator, PC = Pulitzer Prize. I would have found Mr. March much more credible if he had fallen into a time machine from 2005 and was transported back to the 1860s. Otherwise, his radical views (for the times) on so many topics just seemed more like revisionist history than anything else.

    The story line itself held some promise but even there, the author makes a few leaps that left me asking, “wait, what”? Mr. March is a Northerner traveling in Virginia who just happens to come upon a bible study, even though he’s not much for organized religion. He joins in. Really? The Southerners had no problem with that? Oh, and looky there, right next door they are selling slaves. What a brilliant tie-in. After March describes how he is a traveling salesman not having any luck other than selling a few books and thimbles, in one short paragraph he’s made his riches and his back home buying his parents a new house. Sure, that all fits.

    I could go on but clearly, this book was not for me. If you are looking for an author who is adept at writing a back story to previously written books, check out Jon Clinch’s Marley or Finn. Both are dark but brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! How do you really feel, George? Don’t be shy! Your HGTV comment cracked me up. Hey, at least they didn’t insist on granite counter tops! And I can see how March came across as contrived to you. The “the milk belongs to the calf” comments were odd to see coming from characters of this time period.

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  2. I recently bought this book to add to my Audible “library” for the future, mostly because it is the only novel by Geraldine Brooks that I haven’t read yet. I loved People of the Book and the Secret Chord, both relating to her chosen religion (Judaism), and have recently been thinking a lot about Year of Wonders, her book set in 1666 during the Bubonic Plague. It seems odd that she would have trouble crafting a relatable Christian character, since she was born and raised Christian. Come to think of it, one of the main characters in Year of Wonders is a minister! Another idea: Perhaps as an Australian, writing about the American Civil War was a bridge too far. Your thoughtful review did not put me off too much – I still intend to listen to the book soon. Will report back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Martha! I don’t think it has to do with March being a Christian and I also thought the author did fine with the Civil War stuff (I didn’t realize she was Australian). If you’re factoring in George’s comments, I think what you’re seeing is two conservatives being skeptical about a nineteenth century character being such a perfect embodiment of progressive values. I actually didn’t have a big problem with the character of March. He was pretty well developed, in my opinion. My biggest issue with the book was the perpetual heaviness.

      I’m very curious to hear what you think, so please come back and comment after you’ve listened to it.

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