I’ve never read the novel, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I’ve seen the movie version from the 90’s. The story always seemed to be more for children with a maybe overly optimistic view of life. When I realized that Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-prize winning novel, March, was the story of the father of the March family, who was absent from Alcott’s novel because he was fighting for the Union cause in the Civil War, I became intrigued. The novel is written from March’s point of view both in a narrative format and in the form of letters to his wife, Marmee (whom I couldn’t picture as anyone other than Susan Sarandon – see above mentioned movie from the 90’s). The difference between his letters and the reality of the war was powerfully striking. Early on, March refers to the letters to his wife and reveals to the reader that “I never promised I would write the truth.”
Captain March serves as a chaplain in the Union army and staunchly promotes the abolitionist movement. Through his friendships with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, March assumes the role of educated idealist as he declares his intention to fight with the Union at the age of thirty-nine. His fellow comrades, however, view his ideals with disdain and eventually he is “asked” to take a position teaching slaves considered “contraband” on a southern plantation, Oak Landing, captured by the northern army.
The comparison of ideals to the real world of war emerges as the central theme to the novel. March’s gradual understanding that not everyone involved in the war looks at the world with the moral certitude that he does develops him into a remarkable character. He doesn’t always act with the courage that comes out of his mouth when confronted with life and death situations. In spite of his fear, he continues to be, in the words of one of his pupils, “a good, kind man”. The change that takes place within him after teaching and working at Oak Landing and attempting to keep it from being recaptured is hauntingly sad:
And now a year has passed since I undertook to go to war, and I wake every day, sweating, in the seed store at Oak Landing, to a condition of uncertainty. More than months, more than miles, now stand between me and that passionate orator perched on his tree stump pulpit. One day, I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was that day; that innocent man who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do.
Eventually, March becomes gravely ill and Marmee is summoned to Washington, D.C. Her arrival at his bedside to see a an educated slave woman, Grace Clement, nursing March with an emotional attachment that goes beyond duty and March’s reciprocation of that emotion is one of the more heartbreaking moments in the novel. While it is never quite clear that March’s feelings for Grace ever went beyond an emotion, it was, nevertheless, something that could stand in the way of his relationship with his wife.
The reader gets a brief glimpse into Marmee’s mind during her visit to Washington. She is portrayed by Brooks as an outspoken, easy-to-anger woman, a person ahead of her time in fighting for women’s rights to do more and be more than the confines of her society would allow. At the same time, much of her outspokenness and anger gets funneled into a passionate love for her husband and daughters and an ability to teach her daughters to think and act for themselves. Just as her husband’s ideals go through rigorous changes, Marmee must come to terms with the war and its effects on her marriage:
It was folly to let him go. Unfair of him to ask it of me. And yet one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in the long list of things that a woman must not say. A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what war has broken apart.
I knew that if I stood again…and heard him promise to go to war, I would hold my piece, again, even knowing what terrible days were to follow. For to have asked him to do otherwise would have been to wish him a different man. And I knew then that I loved this man. This inconstant, ruined dreamer.