By Geraldine Brooks
Completed April 11, 2008
What happens to a family when a husband and father goes to war? Many books explore this question, and one of the most famous is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. But what about the husband and father - how is he impacted by the war during and after the battles are fought? For these questions, we can rely on the fantastic storytelling of Geraldine Brooks and her Pulitzer-winning March.
In this novel, we learn about Mr. March who was away during Little Women, which offered a creative canvas for Brooks’ story. March, an active abolitionist, enlisted as an army chaplain at the beginning of the Civil War. His service took many twists and turns before he ended up on a Yankee-controlled plantation, where he taught former slaves how to read, write and do math. While there, he fell victim to “the fever” and later a bullet, which forced him to a hospital in Washington, D.C.
Readers of the original Little Women may envision Jo’s father to be a docile, patient, kind-hearted man who made more good decisions than bad. Furthermore, one might expect Marmee March to be the typical antebellum wife and mother – silent, obedient and sinless. Brooks took a different path with these characterizations, however, in March. March was, in fact, very fallible whose idealism cost him (and his family) their fortune and almost March’s life. Marmee March was an impulsive hot head, constrained by the societal and marital norms of her time. Together, their marriage had secrets and miscommunications, which sounded very “normal” to me. Other readers may prefer Alcott’s original depictions, and if you’re one, I recommend skipping March because you will feel frustrated by the Marches.
While this story explored slave conditions and the horrors of the Civil War, the war’s toll on March left the biggest impression. He emerged hopeless and depressed. I think of war veterans now and realize that nothing has changed. We need to do a better job in helping our service men and women when they return to civilian life – whether we agree with the war or not. To me, that’s the biggest lesson I learned from March. The affects of war are timeless, and if you are interested in the social and psychological impacts of war on men, women and children, I would recommend March to you.
(cross-posted from my blog)