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Saturday, July 07, 2007

March

Strangely enough, though I've never read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, I've now read two really good novels that use that book as the basis for their own stories. In early June I stumbled onto The Glory Cloak by Patricia O'Brien, a novel that features Louisa May Alcott as its main character and focuses on her early life, including the time she spent in Washington D.C. working in a Union hospital. And, as often happens, one book led immediately to another and my "formal" reading list had to be adjusted yet again. Sally spotted my review of the The Glory Cloak and it reminded her of another novel that she recommended to me, March,by Geraldine Brooks.

March is told largely in the words of Mr. March, father of all those "little women," and it encompasses the year that he spent as a Union chaplain during the early part of the Civil War. Ever the idealist, one who at times refused to recognize the demands of the real world or to compromise his principles in order to better get along with others, March quickly managed to get on the bad side of both the men to whom he hoped to minister and that of his superior officers. As so often happens during war, March lived a lifetime during his one year of service, a year in which he learned more about himself than he really wanted to know. He came to realize that his ideals and principles did not necessarily come with the courage to do the right thing when to do so put him in personal danger. He ended his year a broken man, one barely alive and, more importantly, one who considered his year of service to have been a disaster for himself and everyone he tried to help.

Along the way, March unexpectedly finds himself revisiting a plantation he remembered from his days as a young traveling salesman trying to build the nest egg he hoped to invest for the remainder of his life. Some twenty years after his first visit, the home is now an emergency hospital for Union troops and life there is nothing like the one he remembered from before. But one thing has not changed. Grace Clements, the mulatto slave woman he was so attracted to on his first visit, is still there and he is still powerfully attracted to her. Grace Clements comes to be one of the two most important women in March's life, in fact.

Having so consistently irritated the troops to whom he was assigned, March is assigned to spend the bulk of his war at a cotton plantation teaching liberated slaves to read and write. This is my one quibble with the book. While, in fact, some southern cotton plantations were leased to northern entrepreneurs during the war so that much needed cotton could be brought to market for benefit of the North, this did not occur nearly so early in the war as portrayed in March. Despite the fact that the heart of the story takes place on this plantation, I could never completely forget just how unlikely it would have been for March to find himself on such a plantation during his particular year of the war.

But that's a minor thing because March has so much to offer. It is filled with the kind of period detail that marks the best historical fiction and fans of Little Women will very likely find it to be the perfect companion piece to one of their favorite novels.

Now I'm really going to have to read Little Women.

Rated at: 4.0
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