While you're waiting to hear from me, I thought I'd post a book review on the last book I read while in the States: March, by Geraldine Brooks. This is a great book for the light novel reader--not too difficult to read, but with some substance to it. Brooks has drawn her inspiration from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and has written the story of the absent father, Mr. March, who has gone off to aid the Union cause in the Civil War. She has loosely based this character on Louisa Alcott's own father, Bronson Alcott.
Bronson Alcott sounds like a man with whom I would love to become acquainted. He was a transcendentalist philosopher, educator, and abolitionist. He counted among his closest friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and his name appears frequently in their letters and journals. It appears that Brooks had plenty of material to study in forming the character of Mr. March, as Bronson Alcott recorded his own life in 61 journals and his letters fill 37 manuscript volumes in the Harvard College Library.
Brooks has done a wonderful job of creating a life and voice for Mr. March. As a callow youth, he shows little thought for the evils of slavery, but he gradually encounters Negro slaves in the South and becomes enlightened. The book takes him through his marriage to Marmee, the loss of his fortune in attempting to advance the abolitionist cause, and his tortured decision to join the Union Army as a chaplain. While experiencing the horrors of war, he loses his innocence and becomes a tortured soul.
It is this character, portrayed near the end of the novel, who captured my imagination. The following excerpt from the novel recounts Mr. March's thoughts as he leaves the hospital and prepares to return home to his anxious family:
You go on. You set one foot in front of the other, and if a thin voice cries out, somewhere behind you, you pretend not to hear, and keep going.
But some steps require more effort than others. As I set my foot upon the path leading to that little brown house, I felt like an impostor. Surely, I had no business here. This was the house of another man. A man I remembered. A person of moral certainty, and some measure of wisdom, whom many called courageous. How could I masquerade as such a one? For I was a fool, a coward, uncertain of everything.
Had I been alone, I might have turned back then, melted away like the snow on that bright, mild morning, become a particle lost in the vast spate flowing through the landscape of war, so that my daughters could live with the unsullied memory of that other man, and not be obliged to know this inferior replacement.
But I was not alone. John Brooke had a firm grip upon my arm and the young Lawrence boy pranced brightly ahead of us, barely able to contain his excitement. He was carrying on as if he brought some bright-wrapped, welcome Christmas gift. If only he knew for what shoddy goods he was the forerunner. I pulled my muffler up high around my face, so as to hide the trembling at the corners of my mouth. Truly, walking up that path was an act of courage greater than any asked of me at war.
To those who have experienced uncertainty, and have faced their own weaknesses in the darker parts of their souls, this character will seem familiar. This novel builds in complexity when, at its apex, one comes to see the differing points of view of several of the characters, and that things are not always as they seem. I loved the shades that the author adds to Marmee. In Little Women, the mother is a paragon of virtue, but in life one can hardly live up to this standard. Here Marmee is shown as a noble, but real person. Without reservation, I would put this novel beside my copy of Little Women upon the shelf.