Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

In Little Women the girls’ father is an absence for most of the novel, off serving in the Union Army during the American Civil War. In March, both the protagonist’s name and a suggestion of military movement, Geraldine Brooks fills in the blanks. It begins with March writing a letter shortly after a disastrous Union attempt to gain some ground from the Confederates. “I never promised I would write the truth,” March confesses, and indeed he leaves much out, the horrors of war and secrets from his own past. He is writing from an island in the Potomac River, literally and figuratively on the border between the two sides.

While March recounts his war time tribulations he explains how he came to be there, from his early witnessing of the slave system while a salesman in his twenties to becoming a avowed abolitionist in the radical Massachusetts enclave of Concord, alongside real figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He becomes a chaplain, deciding that “the pulpit was the place from which to decry this barbarous system”. He meets and marries the impassioned Marmee, who drives him to become more deeply involved in the abolitionist movement. It is under her encouragement, or so he believes, that he joins the army. Action and location are compellingly rendered – the heat of the South and the funk of war- and slavery-ruined bodies rises from the page. Marmee and March are flawed but appealing characters although it feels a little like their sharpest edges have been sanded off, neither getting to the heart of their radicalism nor their complicity in the systems that have brought about the war.

Throughout March the novel wrestles and ties itself in knots over what to do about the awful things that people do to each other. Is it ever ok to resort to violence? What is the place of anger? What happens when you bend some values to uphold others? March is at its most interesting when it exposes some of the gendered aspects of those questions. March the man is shocked to find that his love is prone to fits of righteous anger and worries that it is a sign that she is “bereft of the powers of self-government”. “Perhaps” he writes, “a husband’s gentle guidance could assist her in the battle against such a dangerous enemy”. When the novel flips the script and has Marmee narrate later sections she berates March for his masculine pride that has left him with the wretched sullen guilt of the survivor:

It is pride that makes you think like this, that makes you feel as though you are indispensable … it is not enough for you to be accounted commonly courageous. Oh no: you must be a titan.

The novel ultimately seems to have a pacifist ethic, although this may be unsurprising given it was published in 2005. Perhaps Brooks had the US invasion of Iraq on her mind. Indeed March’s fiery speech to young soldiers gathering to go to war, with its “unholy”, “damnable land”, has strange echoes in George Bush’s declaration of war.

I keep thinking of absences, and the choices about who is allowed in and left out of a story. The narration by husband and wife flattens and centres events and characters to what they mean for a marriage. This is symbolised best by Grace Clements, a former slave and March’s lover. Grace is stoic to a fault, all poise and, well, grace in the face of extreme hardship and oppression. She’s an almost blank canvas for Marmee and March to project their insecurities onto. Only at the very end does Grace threaten to upset the neat narrative that the Marches have constructed for themselves:

We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! … a free people much learn to manage to manage its own destiny.

But it is unconvincing, rendering her a cypher for some late-arriving white reckoning. It’s left to the reader and the reader alone to read into these absences and the blind spots of the two narrators. Certainly more recent novels such as The Prophets or The Sweetness Of Water, even though it centred on a white family in the Reconstruction, were able to explore more convincingly the structures of white power, colonialism and imperialism that enabled war and enslavement.

Gay rating: not gay.

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