March by Geraldine Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Our narrator, Mr. March, is a Union soldier; he's also father to four beloved sisters-—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—taking his offstage journey during the events of the first half of "Little Women." As the little women have their famously instructive scrapes—falling into an ice-covered pond, chopping off hair to raise money,-—Mr. March experiences his own moral education, and sees his lofty ideals (based on those of transcendentalist, and father to Louisa, Bronson Alcott) blown apart by violence.
From ugly battlefield scenes to pre-war plantations to a colony of freed slaves brutally and murderously recaptured by Southern profiteers, Brooks purposefully builds a tale of contrasts. Even Mr. and Mrs. March have totally different views of their marriage--each thinks the other is the unflinching abolitionist, each blames the other for the total sacrifice the family has made for the cause.
Whether in a universal moral context (can war ever be just?), the context of a family or relationship, or even within Mr. March's tortured soul unable to live up to his ideals, Brooks implies that the idols to truth we erect are a flimsy bunch. But, the novel counters, the love and healing we offer each other can redeem us from this bleak minefield of ambiguity—-taking a cue from the supposedly-simple children’s classic whose themes and characters “March” poaches.
If "March" deals too much in Civil War-era cliches, it's a quick and absorbing and question-raising read for fans of either that troubling and thrilling epoch in history or Alcott's life and work.
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