LARRY McGEHEE: Brooks' Book Receives Accolades
A funny thing happened while we were reading Geraldine Brooks' "March" (Penguin Books, 2006, 280 pp.), the 2006 Pulitzer Prize novel.
We forgot that Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy March, and their mother, Marmee, were not real people. Perhaps they have been with us so long -- since 1868 in the novel "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott that every schoolchild used to read, and in several movie versions--that time has made them seem like family members.
So, when Brooks, in a sequel-of-sorts to that familiar book, invents the year-long Civil War adventures (and resurrected flashback memories) of the absent father of the four girls, we are initially indignant that his idealistic and quixotic behavior leaves them stranded in Concord, Mass., poverty-stricken, neglected, and pitiful.
How dare Mr. March have divested himself of profitable manufacturing businesses and handed over the family's entire savings to abolitionist John Brown? How dare he, while addressing departing troops and middle-aged, impulsively have decided to march off with them, leaving his family to fend for itself? How dare he have rediscovered and rekindled affection for a slave he had known and loved when he was an 18-year-old traveling salesman?
The answer is that March was not so much "daring" as he was "doing" -- doing what his high moral principles drove him to do, usually with negative and unintended consequences.
March, the fictional father, takes his character from Bronson Alcott, the real-life father of the Alcotts, a New England Transcendentalist and compatriot of fellow idealists such as Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and of northeastern Unitarians and early abolitionists and Harvard men.
Reading "March" evokes other Civil War-era fiction, from Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage" to Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" and, more recently, Lee Smith's "On Agate Hill."
Brooks' book holds its own among the best of them. She impressively captures the leading male character's educated pulpit language and his complex persona, and shows us through his eyes the sordid southern wartime landscape and the violence and pain of war, both on the battlefield and behind it.
Apparently, accompanying Civil War and civil rights writer, enthusiast, and husband Tony Horwitz (author of "Confederates in the Attic" and a Pulitzer-winning journalist himself) to battlefield reenactments and living in small-town Virginia had unforeseen (and gratifying) influences on Brooks. Her physical locale descriptions and her historical reckonings are uncannily accurate and graphic.
The well-meaning March falls into one moral Victorian dilemma after another. Will he flee or hide when his fellow financial supporters of John Brown are being hunted down? Will he save himself from drowning by releasing the non-swimmer soldier he has managed to hold afloat after the Battle of Ball's Bluff? Will he take up arms against marauding rebel guerrillas who are burning the cotton crops painstakingly planted and nurtured by contraband slaves and who are carting the ex-slaves back to enslavement? When the Union forces pull out of their Carolina preserve, will he stay with the 60 or so contraband slaves whom he has spent months teaching to read and write? Rising from his deathbed in a Washington hotel, will he return to his military chaplaincy duties or will he go home to the family that probably needs him more than does the Union? Lonesome, and often ill, but surrounded by loving and nubile women of color, will he succumb to his physical lusts?
One of the unheralded benefits of this book is that, by making Mr. March so human, so torn between principles and realities, Brooks actually makes the March mother and four girls less saccharine and perfect than we recall them being -- especially as June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O'Brien played them in one of several screen versions of Little Women.
This book screams for screening. Mr. March needs someone special -- a clone of Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Van Heflin, or Orson Welles -- to portray him. Tom Hanks would do nicely. So would Al Gore.
Read "March" first -- easily done in two days time -- and then cast the movie yourself. Let Brooks' impressive imagination ignite your own. This is really good reading -- even in its blood and bestiality, offal and all. This is historical fiction at its best.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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