Monday, November 5, 2012

March by Geraldine Brooks

It feels like a long time since I’ve read such an accomplished novel. Geraldine Brooks manages to catch the horror of war in a phrase: “…[men] were clinging [to the rocky bluff over the river] as a cluster of bees dangling from a hive, and slipping off in clumps, four or five together.” Her characters are so richly drawn and steeped in a historically accurate language that we feel transported, and are eager to delve into our own researches.

In this novel she recreates the environment of one of our most beloved and earliest American writers, Louisa May Alcott. But instead of walking on furrowed soil, she moves back to imagine Alcott’s father, using his own journals and those of his friends, as well as the journals of Civil War chaplains, soldiers, medics, and slaves. She chose an unusual man, but she made him gracious, sympathetic, fallible, generous, and loving. This is essential to carry us through those bitter days of the Civil War, for we need a man willing to mull over events of that time but also to guide us.

He was sincere, but must have also been painfully strict with his family:
…I had come in stages to a different belief about how one should be in this life. I now felt convinced that the greater part of a man’s duty consists in abstaining from much that he is in the habit of consuming…None in our household ate meat but now we learned to do without milk and cheese also, for why should the calf be deprived of its mother’s milk? Further, we found that by limiting our own consumption to two meals a day, we were able to set aside a basket of provisions from which the girls were able to exact a pleasure far greater than sating an animal appetite. Once a week they carried the fruits of their sacrifice as a gift to a destitute brood of German immigrants.
I laughed to read this, for the sincerity of the father must be the disappointment of the daughters.

Part I is written in the voice of Captain March, chaplain of the Union Army. Though we learn the deepest secrets buried in his heart, we never learn his first name. Part II is written in the voice of his wife, Marmee March née Day of Concord, Massachusetts. The juxtaposition of the two voices shows us once again, should we need reminding, that gestures alone between husband and wife are often miscontrued and that we should try to give careful voice to our meaning and intentions if we wish the union to succeed.

“Ragged scallop of cypress woods”, Jo's “lawless strands” [of hair], “a cold drizzle [falling] from heavily swagged clouds”: such phrases spike the book with rich flavor and bursts of color, and these are all Brooks. It is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction, but what I reveled in most was her smooth and seamless telling of the tale in backward glances and nineteenth century cadence and language, her use of metaphor, her rich imaginings, and its grounding in historical record. We can thank her for reminding us of our history and for remembering those men and women who left records of their lives and of our most uncivil war.

For those contemplating the audio version, the narration by Richard Easton is magnificent. His reading's fluency of expression and elegance of tone mirrors the beauty of the text.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores