Geraldine Brooks and her husband moved in the 1990s to a small town in Virginia that appeared to have been part of the battlefield of the Civil War. Brooks found bullet holes in the nearby church and unearthed a Union soldier's belt buckle in her yard. The town had been predominantly abolitionist and Quaker but was situated in a Confederate state. The clash of interests in the area along with its history sparked Brooks's interest in the war, especially in the ideals for which each side fought.
Her study brought her to Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women (1868) and an interest in the part of the story that was left out: John March's experiences in the war. In her novel March (2005), Brooks envisions what happens to Mr. March after he leaves his family to serve as a chaplain for the Union army. As she imagines the story of the March family, Brooks adds a more somber tone to her depiction of the idealistic father and the harsh truths he must face about the institution of slavery and the fight to abolish it. The novel traces twenty years in March's life, chronicling his journey from innocence to experience as he discovers the darkness at the heart of humankind and in his own soul.
Geraldine Brooks was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1955. She attended Sydney University and in
Brooks served as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal during the late 1980s and 1990s, covering stories in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, and in 1990 during the Persian Gulf War. During this time, she was able to study the world of Muslim women, an experience that inspired her first non-fiction book, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1995). The book was highly praised for its realistic portrait that provides impressive insight into the lives of these women. Her second non-fiction work, Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over (1998), is a memoir of her childhood in Sydney, Australia, and of the important effect that international pen pals had on her sense of self.
Brooks turned to fiction in 2001 with the critically acclaimed novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001), which dramatizes the effects of the bubonic plague on an English town in the seventeenth century. The subsequent novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005), cemented her reputation as an important figure in the literary world.
In addition to the Pulitzer, Brooks has won several awards. She received the Hal Boyle Award, Overseas Press Club of America in 1990, for the best daily newspaper or wire service reporting from abroad. In 2005, the Washington Post named March one of the five best novels of the year. In 2006, Brooks received a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University.
In 1984, Brooks married fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, Tony Horwitz. As of 2007, the couple had one son.
Chapter One: Virginia Is a Hard Road
March opens with lines from a letter written by John March, a forty-year-old company chaplain for the Union army, on October 21, 1861, to his wife, Marmee, and to his daughters, after the Battle of Ball's Bluff in Virginia. March is exhausted but has promised to write her everyday. He admits that although he misses her comforting hand, he does not want her there, and he will not write her the truth about the war.
- As of 2007, an audio version of the novel, read by Richard Easton, was available from Audiobooks America. No film versions had been made.
March watches the burial party collect bodies, claiming, "I had no orders, and so placed myself where I believed I could do most good," praying with the wounded. He recalls that during the battle, he tried to help a young Union soldier cross the river to safety, but the boy was shot in the process and drowned. Some of the men, including March, made it to an island in the river where March now thinks about the day's events and the rotting bodies that surround him. As he makes his way to the army field hospital, he recognizes that it is Clement's house.
Chapter Two: A Wooden Nutmeg
When he was eighteen, March peddled trinkets and books throughout Virginia. At one plantation, he met a slave named Grace who impressed him with her regal manner and beauty. She brought him into the kitchen for a meal and later to meet the master, Augustus Clement, who took an immediate liking to March and his passion for learning. Clement invited him to stay as long as he liked and peruse his well-stocked library. The two men talked long into the night about the books that they had read, enjoying each other's company.
The next day, March met the frail Mrs. Clement who had not been well since a fall from her horse. March noted Grace's kind treatment of her mistress, to whom she read every afternoon. Mrs. Clement explained that Grace was born on the plantation and was given to her as a wedding gift. Grace later told him that Clement sold her mother south soon after she was born.
That evening March and Mr. Clement discussed slavery, the latter insisting that slaves should be treated decently but not trusted because they are prone to such vices as "laziness, deceit, debauchery, [and] theft." He considered them children, "morally speaking," who occasionally needed to be whipped "for their good, as well as [their masters]." When Clement convinced March that slaves benefit "from the moral example of the master," March felt fortunate to be "even briefly, a part of this higher way of life."
After Prudence, the cook's daughter, showed aptitude and interest in learning to read, March drew some letters in the ashes of the hearth, which frightened Grace. She explained to March that for the past ten years teaching a slave to read had been against the law. Later, however, Grace reconsidered and asked March to teach Prudence to read.
March, who had always yearned to be a teacher, was touched by Grace's request and considered raising the issue with Clement. One evening, when March asked him whether one of his slaves could be taught to handle some of the accounts at the plantation, Clement reproached him, insisting that educating a slave would inspire a violent rebellion. The next morning, March decided to begin teaching Prudence surreptitiously a few nights a week.
During the next two weeks, Prudence proved herself to be an apt pupil as March became a capable teacher. One evening, after drinking too much wine, March kissed Grace who then warned him that "it's not wise" to do so. Later, he was awakened by Clement's manager who discovered evidence that he had been teaching Prudence. Grace took responsibility and as a result was cruelly whipped, which March was forced to observe.
Chapter Three: Scars
March writes his next letter to his wife on November 1, 1861, thanking her for her letter and a parcel that she has sent. He thinks back to his wanderings after he left the Clement estate and remembers one day praying in a church. Outside the window, slaves were being auctioned. When the pastor called for donations for missions into Africa to a congregation that ignored the injustices occurring just a few feet away, March was sickened by the hypocrisy and left. During the next year, March made good money on his sales, which eventually he invested and turned into a sizable fortune.
At present, he works with a surgeon at the Union camp and offers comfort to dying men. Only three hundred and fifty are left out of more than six hundred. He discovers that Grace is helping the surgeon and tending to Clement, who has become a feeble old man. She explains that after his wife died, Clement refused to give Grace up, and later she admits that he is her father. After Clement's son was disfigured in a hunting accident, Clement started a slow decline in health. March's feelings of guilt and lust for her overwhelm him and the two embrace.
Chapter Four: A Little Hell
While he is stationed outside Harper's Ferry, March writes Marmee on January 15, 1862, about his position as chaplain and about how some soldiers with a stricter religious attitude are perplexed by his unconventional beliefs. He explains that the previous night, as they were poised for battle, he gave a sermon on John Brown and his abolitionist activities.
March remembers the first time he met Marmee, in her brother's church where he had been invited to speak. When he saw her in the congregation, he was immediately struck with her intensity and intelligence. That evening at dinner with her and her brother, March discovered that their zeal for reform matched his own.
As he waits for the fighting to begin near Harper's Ferry, March sees many injustices. A major commands troops to burn a town after one of his men is killed there. When March criticizes the action, the major refuses to speak to him further. March later finds soldiers harassing a woman and her daughter and destroying her property. When he reports them, the colonel barely responds. The colonel then suggests that March resign his post because he "can't seem to get on with anyone." When March resists, the colonel insists, noting that the surgeon has seen him with Grace. The colonel wants him reassigned to the "problem of the contraband," the displaced former slaves. March is worried that he will bring shame to Marmee if she discovers his relationship with Grace, and so he agrees.
Chapter Five: A Better Pencil
March thinks back to his relocation to Concord, where Marmee is staying with her invalid father, under the pretext of searching for an investment. His uncle had found him a young man who had invented a better pencil. March stayed with the Thoreaus and their son, Henry David Thoreau, a taciturn person who felt most at home in nature.
One evening, Mrs. Thoreau, an ardent abolitionist, invited Ralph Waldo Emerson, his wife, and Marmee, who was a friend of her daughters, for dinner. After Emerson rebuked Marmee for endangering her father with her abolitionist activities, Marmee flew into a rage, insisting that Emerson was doing little to help the plight of blacks. March was shocked by her outburst and thought that she needed a man to help her govern her temper.
That night, March came across Marmee in the woods. She broke down as she told him that the slave she was trying to help was caught and branded. March's attempts at consolation led to a consummation of their feelings for each other. Less than two weeks later they were married, and within nine months, Marmee gave birth to Margaret, the first of their four daughters.
Chapter Six: Yankee Leavening
March writes to Marmee on March 10, 1862, while aboard the Hetty G, a federal ram boat, on his way to Oak Landing, a southern plantation that is now being run by Ethan Canning, an Illinois attorney. Canning has a year's lease on the property, which he is trying to restore and make profitable. When Marsh arrives, he finds the plantation in utter disarray. The cotton fields are overgrown, and the house has been picked clean by federal soldiers and rebel irregulars. After finding a sick boy and rescuing a man whom Canning had confined in a well for punishment, March confronts Canning about the treatment of the ex-slaves on his property, none of whom is being paid for his labor.
Canning explains that there is no doctor available to treat the sick, and the man whom he punished had slaughtered a hog and fed it to his grown sons who then joined the Confederates. The 167 ex-slaves on the plantation need to be fed, and so they all must work, he insists, to harvest the cotton crop. Their pay will come after the cotton is sold. March determines to contact abolitionists in Concord and Boston to help fund the running of the plantation. He feels guilty about not being able to help: He has lost his fortune, which has impoverished his family and has caused him a tremendous sense of guilt.
Chapter Seven: Bread and Shelter
March thinks back to the time when he and Marmee were newlyweds and when he renovated their home, which included a space in which slaves could hide on their way north to Canada. They spent a good deal of time with Emerson and Thoreau. One evening, Marmee lost her temper with March's aunt over the issue of slavery. Later, they heard a speech by John Brown, the famous abolitionist, who spoke at a Concord church. Brown stirred Marmee's passions, and she and March invited him back to their home where he outlined his Adirondack project, which helped indigent blacks become landowners. Prodded in part by his jealously over his wife's attentions to Brown, March turned over his fortune to Brown for his project. The land Brown bought proved, however, to be worthless, and much of the money was rerouted into arms.
With their finances depleted, March was forced to sell off his possessions and move to a smaller home. Aunt March and Marmee had another heated argument, which caused the former to refuse to talk to the family for ten years. When March confronted Marmee about her temper after she lashed out at him, she agreed that it had gotten out of hand and resolved to work on controlling her emotions. Ten years later, when Jo ran into Aunt March on the street, Jo charmed the elderly woman who hired her as a companion. Meg had already acquired a position as a governess to help out with the family's finances.
Chapter Eight: Learning's Altar
March writes to Marmee from Oak Landing, on March 30, 1862, the day the cotton ginning begins. He tells her that he has set up his schoolhouse and that the workers are enthusiastic learners. Later, March goes to town to get news of the war and comes across a group of Union scouts. One causes a young black child, Jimse, to scald his hand. March takes the child back to the plantation, followed by the child's mother Zannah, and dresses his wound. He is later told that Zannah never speaks because her tongue was cut out by two whites who had molested her. March notes his absolute pleasure in teaching, even though it is exhausting work.
Chapter Nine: First Blossom
On May 10, 1862, March writes to Marmee that all are rejoicing on the plantation this day because the cotton has been safely shipped to market, and they have received packages from Concord, filled with clothing, food, and medicines. When payment arrives, Canning has little left after handing out wages to the blacks. But some of the workers bring him high quality cotton that they had saved and hidden from the soldiers, which enables Canning to pay his expenses. That night, March celebrates with the workers.
Chapter Ten: Saddleback Fever
The next morning March awakes with saddleback fever, so called because the return of health is only temporary before the fever strikes again. Canning and the workers nurse him back to health. When he recovers, Canning tells him that the Union army is reducing the number of soldiers in the nearby town. They all now fear that the Confederates will try to take the land and return the workers to slavery. March, however, refuses to leave, even though Canning warns him that the Confederates kill abolitionists.
Chapter Eleven: Tolling Bells
March recalls the details of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and his resulting martyrdom in the North. The incident, however, had a negative effect on blacks in the South and caused a slowdown of the number of escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. He remembers when they hid a young, pregnant girl for a few weeks. One evening, when March and Marmee were out, the constable came to look for the girl but Beth, one of their daughters, sent him away. A year later, war was declared, and during an impromptu sermon given to a group of young men preparing to leave, March decided to join them in their fight.
Chapter Twelve: Red Moon
March's fears are realized when one evening, Confederate soldiers raid the plantation. March hides while Canning is captured and tortured. One of the soldiers threatens to kill a worker if March does not come out of hiding, but March's fear holds him back, and the soldier decapitates the worker, which fills March with overwhelming guilt. The soldiers burn the buildings and round up several black men, women, and children and leave with them along with Canning, who has had both knees shattered by bullets. March follows at a safe distance, wondering how he can ever face his family and endure his shame.
After the group arrives at camp, March tries to help Zannah when a soldier attacks her as she tries to save her child. Jesse, one of the workers, stops him, insisting "Now ain't no time to make a move." He tells March to wait with him until nightfall when they might have a chance to free some of the workers.
Chapter Thirteen: A Good Kind Man
Jesse explains that he "put a little something" in the corn liquor the soldiers stole from the plantation and that they will wait until the men feel its effects. When the first soldier, sickened by the liquor, goes off into the woods, Jesse kills him and takes his weapons. March refuses to kill the next one but takes the saber from Jesse so that he can free the workers. He overhears the soldiers planning to ransom Canning, but the latter insists that he has no family to pay for him. Just as a soldier is about to kill Canning, March rushes out from his hiding place and insists that he has a fiancée. Canning, however, admits that the woman died of consumption a year ago. Determining that he will decide their fate in the morning, the major orders March and Canning tied up.
Soon, after most of the soldiers have fallen into a drunken sleep, he sees Zannah, whom Jesse had helped to escape, cut the other captives' ropes. A cracking branch draws fire from one of the guards and the others awaken and recapture the workers, but not before killing some, including Canning, and wounding March. After March lies unconscious for a time, Zannah appears and tells him that she is the only one who got away. March loses consciousness again, and when he awakes, he finds himself in a Union hospital. A nurse tells him that Zannah risked her life to bring him there.
Chapter Fourteen: Blank Hospital
The narrative switches to Marmee's voice after she has received a note from Blank Hospital in Washington, informing her that March is gravely ill. As she sits by his bedside, waiting for him to regain consciousness, she thinks that "it was folly to let him go" and that he should not have left his family. She also blames him in part for plunging the family into poverty.
When she first sees him in the hospital, she does not recognize him due to his emaciated, broken body, which is suffering from fever and pneumonia. When he wakes, he is delirious, ranting about people and events that she does not recognize. She can only make out his cries for forgiveness.
Chapter Fifteen: Reunion
The next morning Marmee tries to find someone in the hospital to care for her husband, but the number of patients overwhelms the small number of staff. She has an argument with a cold, curt nurse and ends up throwing a bowl of soup in her face. Marmee recognizes that if March is going to survive, she will have to care for him. An orderly who has observed the row directs her to the nurse who knows more details about what happened to March. The nurse turns out to be Grace, who has cared for him since he arrived in the hospital. When she observes the intimate interaction between March and Grace, Marmee suspects that he has been unfaithful to her.
Chapter Sixteen: River of Fire
When March is too weak to speak to her and allay her fears about Grace, Marmee finds herself living in the home of the hospital surgeon and his wife, who have grown to love her as their own daughter. Grace tells Marmee of the history Grace and March have together, her words striking Marmee "like a fist." Marmee recognizes the deception of his letters and understands that he lost his first position because he had been caught with Grace. She is incensed that this woman is providing the truth about her husband and her marriage. When Marmee insists, "He loves you," Grace explains that he loves only the "idea" of her, of a liberated black woman. Marmee wonders whether she will be able to forgive him "for the years of silence, and the letters filled with lies."
Chapter Seventeen: Reconstruction
Grace tells Marmee that March's distressed spirit is preventing him from recovering and that Marmee must find a way to help relieve his guilt and to convince him that he is needed at home. Marmee thinks about how he has failed her "in so many ways" and wounded her profoundly, but soon she becomes convinced that whatever it costs her, she will bring him home. Gradually, March's condition improves to the point that he is able to tell Marmee about everything that happened to him as she tries to fill him with hope for the future. March, however, insists that he needs to do more to help others who are suffering in the war, a sentiment Marmee recognizes as his effort to assuage his own guilt over his actions on the plantation. She accuses him of being proud and insists that his duty now lies with his family. March admits that he despises himself. Later, Marmee recognizes that she still loves him.
Chapter Eighteen: State of Grace
March's voice returns, expressing the guilt he feels over the lives that have been lost. He learns that Beth has come down with scarlet fever and that Marmee has been called back to Concord to tend to her. In a note she leaves for him, she reiterates the family's need for him and implores him to return to them as soon as possible. After March expresses the hope that he can work with her to help the injured, Grace tries to convince him to stop wallowing in his guilt. When he insists that she cannot know how he feels, she tells him that she had played a part in the accident that caused Clement's son's death, after the latter tried to have sexual relations with her. She tells him that he must learn to live with his guilt as she has with hers. She insists that blacks must learn to manage their own destiny and that he should go home where he can help prepare northern whites to see blacks as equals. March understands that his daughters, and not Grace, need him now.
Chapter Nineteen: Concord
March returns home, feeling like an imposter since he has changed so radically, and finds that Beth has recovered. He still pines for Grace, however, recognizing that he will never see her again. Surrounded by his loving family, March decides, "I would do my best to live in the quick world, but the ghosts of the dead would be ever at hand."
John Brown is based on the famous abolitionist who raided the armory at Harper's Ferry and was subsequently hanged. He is passionate about his cause and gives stirring speeches to his followers. He does not appear to be a good business man, however, when he loses the fortune that March has given to him.
Ethan Canning is an Illinois attorney who has leased Oak Landing, the southern plantation where March comes to teach ex-slaves. When March arrives, he observes Canning's cruel treatment of his workers. Yet March soon discovers a more complex side to the man. Canning explains that his quite realistic fear of ruin causes him to force the blacks to work continuously. He recognizes that the neglected crops as well as the constant threat from rebels may cause the plantation to fail.
He reveals a basic decency as he is influenced by March's own. March notes a kinder side to Canning, describing him as open to suggestion, fair-minded, and grateful for the hard work of his laborers. Canning allows the workers time off to attend school and to share in the goods sent by northern abolitionists. He also warns March to leave when the Union army reduces its troops in the nearby town, knowing that they habitually kill abolitionists. His courage emerges when he refuses to tell the soldiers where to find March and is tortured and later when he dies as a result of trying to save March's life.
Augustus Clement, a well-educated southern plantation owner, is generous to March upon his arrival, insisting that he stay as long as he likes. Clement enjoys discussing books and ideas with the younger man. Clement appears to be a decent, intelligent man who treats his slaves well, but when March presses him on the issue of emancipation, Clement reveals his racism. He considers blacks to be children who need the firm hand of a white master to keep them in line. His cruel nature is evident when he sells Grace's mother as soon as Grace is born and when he orders Grace whipped for asking March to teach Prudence to read.
The biracial daughter of August Clement, Grace Clement appears proud when March first meets her, but she soon proves that she is aptly named. March commends her neat appearance and intelligent, well-spoken manner. Her kind treatment of Mrs. Clement and later of Mr. Clement almost appears too good to be true, especially when she refuses to leave the latter even after he has ordered her beaten. Readers see her, however, through March's eyes; she appears saintly to him, an idea, as Grace notes, of Africa itself and of the promise of equality. She tries to force him to see by the end of the novel that she too has faults. She was involved in the accident that disfigured Clement's son, who had tried to rape her. Grace suggests she might have caused the gun to discharge and admits that she rejoiced in his death.
Mrs. Clement, Augustus Clement's wife, has been an invalid since a fall from a horse and since then has been terrified of the world. She has accepted Grace as a constant companion and feels a real affection for her, although she also feels complete ownership of her.
Based on the historical person, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a well-known writer and philosopher. He and his wife are good friends of the Thoreaus, with whom March stays for a time. Emerson's unwillingness to speak out against slavery causes Marmee to lose her temper with him. Later, however, he becomes more active in his condemnation of the slave system.
Jesse, one of the workers who initially escapes the Confederates after they raid the plantation, reveals his intelligence when he spikes his moonshine with poison, knowing the soldiers will take it. He also shows his kindness and courage when he tries to save March's life.
Aunt March, March's sister, is a cold, unforgiving woman who refuses to speak to the March family after Marmee loses her temper with her. She relents, however, revealing a softer side when she runs into Jo one day and decides to hire her as a companion. Later, she shows her generosity and capacity to forgive when she gives Marmee money to go to Washington to care for March. She speaks her mind, as does Marmee, and sees the reality of situations behind the idealistic surface; she is the only one who upbraids March for deciding to enlist.
Painfully shy Beth March, one of the four March daughters, shows great courage when she stands up to the local sheriff who comes looking for a runaway slave.
Jo March, one of the four March daughters, inherits Marmee's temper. She shows her good heart, though, when she cuts her beautiful hair to raise money for Marmee's trip to Washington to care for March.
John March is an idealist, with firm convictions, especially his commitment to abolitionism. He also is a nonconformist who is not afraid to show his independence in thought and action. This side of his personality is revealed in his style of preaching. He rejects the traditional Calvinist sermons full of fire and damnation and also the idea of original sin. His God is more personal. He dismisses the rituals of organized, conventional religion. He aspires to aid and give comfort to soldiers, but his earnestness and honesty often cause them more consternation than comfort. A Union corporal to whom he complains about some soldiers' rough treatment of southerners notes, "your duty is to bring the men comfort…. And yet all you seem to do is make people uncomfortable."
March is a kind and loving father and husband, although his acceptance of traditional male and female roles causes him to try to restrain his wife's emotions and behavior. He is also generous, placing his desire to help the abolitionist cause above his desire for material comfort. His strong moral sense is triggered by the hypocrisy he perceives in churchgoers who can raise money for African missions but ignore the sale of blacks outside the church door. When he enlists in the Union army, he displays the courage of his convictions. He becomes confused, however, when his firm set of beliefs is shaken by the realities of the war. Aunt March thinks him a fool when he enlists, a sentiment shared to a lesser degree by Marmee. March's ideals sometimes blind him to the consequences of his actions.
Margaret Day March
See Marmee March
Margaret Day March, called Marmee, has a sometimes explosive temper, which she unleashes on those whom she thinks insult her or her convictions. Her passionate nature and zest for life attract March, even though her temper troubles him. She is as devoted to the abolitionist cause as he is, and like him she has the courage to act on her beliefs, serving as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She is intelligent, quickly picking up on the nuances of an argument, and self-assured. Her unconventional opinion of women's rights is sometimes contradicted by her husband. She does, however, succumb at times to the pressure to conform, as she notes in her quiet acceptance of March's determination to go to war.
Prudence is the cook's daughter on the Clement plantation. When she shows a quick mind and a strong desire to learn, March teaches her to read, which is against the law. When they are discovered, Grace takes responsibility and is whipped for it.
Based on the historical person, Henry David Thoreau is a young man when March stays with the Thoreau family while courting Marmee. Thoreau would rather be walking by his beloved Walden Pond than sitting in the parlor exchanging pleasantries with guests.
Mrs. Thoreau, Henry's mother, is a passionate abolitionist. She and her husband are good friends with Marmee and the Emersons.
Zannah is a young female ex-slave at Oak Landing, who has had her tongue cut out by two white men after she refused their sexual advances. She displays a fierce love for her son Jimse. She also shows great strength and courage when she carries March to the Union hospital.
A Woman's Place
Both Marmee and Grace suffer from the restrictions placed on American women during the nineteenth century. The difference is Marmee, a middle-class white woman, is able to voice her objections. She notes how difficult it is for women to gain a meaningful education, that they "are subjected to a course of study [music, drawing, languages] that is stultifying, oppressive, crippling rather than enhancing to [their] moral integrity and intellectual growth." They are not allowed to engage in arguments or show any strong emotion. Marmee tries to ignore this tradition but is criticized for doing so, especially by her husband. When they first marry, she determines that if she has daughters, she will raise them to be free spirits.
Marmee tries without much success to control her emotions and actions. When she gets angry at Emerson's apparent lack of conviction regarding the abolitionist cause, March wonders, "who could have imagined this gently bred young woman to be so entirely bereft of the powers of self-government." He determines that it is his place to teach her to stay within feminine boundaries, noting "perhaps…a husband's gentle guidance could assist her in the battle against such a dangerous bosom enemy." He wonders "what sort of wife, what sort of mother" would she be if she were allowed to give free vent to her emotions. Yet the irony is lost on him when he enjoys her passionate nature as it turns sexual in the woods. Looking back on their relationship, he thinks, "I tried to teach her something about her new place, giving her to understand, with gentle hints and loving guidance, that what might be considered lapses born of high spirits in a young maiden were in no way proper in one who was now a mother and a wife." The tacit assumption is that it is the male's prerogative and responsibility to educated the female, that he has the superior awareness and knowledge.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and compare its theme of bravery and cowardice to that in March. Does Brooks raise any new points about what defines these terms and the effect that the acknowledgement of cowardice has on an individual? Write a comparison and contrast paper on the two novels, focusing on the authors' treatment of this subject.
- The flashbacks in the novel would be difficult to depict in film. How would you solve this problem? Write a section of the novel that includes a scene from the present and one from the past as a screenplay, noting how you would make a smooth transition between the parts.
- Research the subject of race relations in the North during the Civil War. How did attitudes towards blacks compare with those in the South. Did those attitudes change significantly immediately after the war? Present a PowerPoint presentation on your findings.
- Write a short story that focuses on the March family five years after the end of the novel. How do you envision March dealing with his guilt? Would he and Marmee be able to regain the strong relationship they once had?
Marmee recognizes the limitations of her power to break out of traditional roles. Facing Jo's similarly intense temper, Marmee justifies her refusal to curb her daughter by declaring "the world would crush [Jo's] spirit soon enough." Later, she regrets keeping quiet about her feelings regarding March's enlistment. She claims, "It was folly to let him go," but she recognizes that "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." She insists, "I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces." Those pieces include her sense of betrayal when March lies to her about the reality of the war and his relationship with
Grace. His need to protect her from the truth suggests both his hypocrisy and his assumption that she is incapable of handling it. Brooks adds a nice touch of irony in the fact that March works so hard at trying to free blacks from slavery, while at the same time he is blind to restrictions placed on his own wife. While working on behalf of slaves, he does not examine his own patriarchal and paternalistic thinking.
Rebellion against Tradition
March rebels against traditional religious practices and beliefs when he rejects the notion of original sin and finds more spirituality in nature than he does in a church. Marmee, although restricted by convention, is also able to exercise some resistance to social dictates about the behavior of women. She has grown up with the freedom to voice her opinions, an urge that does not appear to have been checked by her parents. She rejects the traditional education offered to women and has learned on her own about a range of subjects that conventionally would be considered in the realm of male knowledge (that information only appropriate for men to know).
Marmee also refuses to give in to her husband's desire to put her in her place. After her outburst at Aunt March, she insists to him, "You stifle me! You crush me! You preach emancipation, and yet you enslave me, in the most fundamental way." She asserts her right for equality when she asks, "Am I not to have the freedom to express myself, in my own home? … I am your belittled woman, and I am tired of it," insisting, "I will not be degraded in this way." Marmee does go too far in her tirade, however, when she strikes March, but her words address the real issue of female inequality during the period and of women's early efforts to break free of traditional roles.
Brooks wrote March after imagining what happened to the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women during his experiences as a chaplain among the Union forces during the Civil War. She borrowed plot details and scenes from the first novel as she created a story for Mr. March, who does not have a voice in Alcott's novel. Brooks's novel is darker in tone and presents a more complex study of its main character.
Both novels begin with a letter from Mr. March to his family. In Alcott's novel, the March daughters are gathered around Marmee as she reads the letter, and in Brooks's, March is writing it from a remote military camp. Part One of Alcott's novel ends with March's return home after a serious illness, focusing on his appreciation of his daughters' development into womanhood. The rest of the novel continues the story of that development as the March daughters successfully overcome their individual character flaws.
Brooks includes March's homecoming, but this version is much more ambiguous than the first. Marmee's voice at the end of March reinforces the link to the previous work but also emphasizes the darker vision of the latter as she learns of and must come to accept the radical changes in her husband. Brook refuses easy solutions or lessons; she focuses on the horrors of war and its effects on those who participate in it. In all, Alcott's novel is a sentimental, woman-centered depiction of the inner world of family life, while Brooks's novel emphasizes the man's outer world of war and work.
Mixture of Fictional and Non-fictional Characters
Brooks's novel is a historical fiction. It combines historical figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, with fictional characters, some of whom are borrowed from Alcott's novel. Brooks creates an historically based picture of life in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century, and she also depicts the complicated experience both northerners and southerners faced during the Civil War, a conflict waged mostly in the southern states. Brooks incorporated bits of Bronson Alcott's letters into the novel as well as those by Thoreau and Emerson, along with other pieces of their writings. The famous authors were Alcott family friends just as they are depicted to be in Alcott's and Brooks's novels. In combining fact and fiction, in elaborating on the original fiction of Louisa May Alcott, Brooks is able to convey in her novel a broader and admittedly different perspective on the Civil War experience and the cause of abolition.
The Civil War
The American Civil War lasted four years (1861-1865), the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, which claimed 600,000 American lives, more than all wars fought between 1865 and 2007 added together. It broke out between northern states, the Union, and the southern states, the Confederacy, when the South seceded from the Union. The causes of the war were complex and involved political, economic, and social issues. The southern states had increasingly tried to separate themselves from the North since the Revolutionary War, a movement that escalated sharply after 1820 when the newly formed western territories began to deal with the question of slavery and faced being admitted to the Union as either slave or free states. The concern about keeping the number of states even on both sides was coupled with increasingly vocal objection by abolitionists in the North, which caused the South to be even more eager to have equal representation in Congress.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The war began on April 12, 1861, when P. G. I. Beauregard led an attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Soon after, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee joined the other Confederate states. Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), a U.S. senator, became president of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee became commander of the Confederate Army, and Ulysses S. Grant led the Union army.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was a network of hidden routes and safe houses that led from southern states to Canada, Mexico, and overseas. Abolitionists worked along the routes during the nineteenth century to help escaped slaves reach freedom. During the first part of the century, approximately one hundred thousand slaves escaped from the South. Along the secret routes, these escaped slaves found refuge and provisions in safe houses called "stations." Church congregations and other spiritual groups played a major part in helping slaves escape, especially Quakers, Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians. In an effort to combat the growing Underground Railroad network and assist slave owners in recapturing their slaves, the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in Congress, making it illegal to assist escaping slaves. This law further infuriated those northerners who believed slavery is immoral; many of these people refused to obey the new law.
John Brown and Harper's Ferry
John Brown (1800-1850), a radical abolitionist, led a raid on the federal armory in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, on October 16, 1859. He and twenty-one men captured several buildings of arms, intent on arming a slave revolt in the South. They were unable to escape with the arms, however, as they became surrounded by locals and the militia. Within two days, most of the raiders had been killed or captured, including two of Brown's sons. Brown was found guilty of treason and was hanged, a martyr for some and a traitor for others. The raid stirred both pro- and anti-slavery passions in the North and in the South and helped propel the country into the Civil War.
March is referred to in passing as a transcendentalist, a follower of transcendentalism, the philosophical movement that rose in New England during the nineteenth century. Its most prominent proponents were Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). American transcendentalism was a form of philosophical romanticism that first emerged in Europe in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (1788). The philosophy was also expressed by certain romantic poets, for example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1172-1834) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).
Emerson's Nature (1836) explains the philosophy, which poses that the natural world cloaks a spiritual one beyond it. Permeating nature are signs of what Emerson called the Oversoul, the metaphysical divine agency behind all creation. Transcendentalism asserts that the material world is a code or manifestation of the transcendent spiritual realm beyond it. Followers of this philosophy believe that they have direct connection to deity, often felt most clearly out in nature. Emerson believed that humans should trust themselves since God can speak through them. This sense of spiritual democracy is expressed somewhat indirectly in Thoreau's works, especially Walden (1854), along with a call to live simply and close to nature.
March, which received widespread positive reviews, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Writing in Publishers Weekly, one reviewer calls the novel "luminous," "affecting," and "beautifully written" as it "drives home the intimate horrors and ironies of the Civil War and the difficulty of living honestly with the knowledge of human suffering." Brooks's characters, the review claims, "speak with a convincing 19th-century formality, yet the narrative is always accessible," an assessment echoed by a reviewer for the Economist, who asserts that "the novel's voice captures well the flowery, elegant prose of a bookish 19th-century reverend." However, Marta Segal Block in Booklist argues that while "the nineteenth-century writing style is accurate and entertaining, … it may be too ornate for some readers. The best moments in the narrative are the peeks inside the mind of the longsuffering Marmee."
Christina Schwarz, in her review for the Atlantic Monthly writes, "Brooks's narrative is remarkably tight. Whereas much literary fiction wallows in digression, here every scrap of information propels the story forward." Schwarz praises the "vibrant elucidation of the idea at the heart of this novel" that humans and "the loftiness of [their] undertakings are inherently ‘clouded’ and ‘murk-stained.’" An article in Kirkus Reviews finds "the morally gray complications" of March's work with the freed slaves "the novel's greatest strength," but concludes that while "the battle scenes are riveting, the human drama [is] flat."
Thomas Mallon, in the New York Times Book Review, also finds fault. Mallon points out that the subjects of war and slavery prompt "the author and her characters toward a prolonged moral exhibitionism." While he gives credit to the work as "nicely researched," Mallon concludes, the novel "makes a distressing contribution to recent trends in historical fiction, which…seems to be returning to its old sentimental contrivances and costumes."
Many critics praise the historical accuracy of the novel and its creative link to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Daniel Shealy in the New England Quarterly, for example, writes that Brooks "weaves a novel out of both real and fictional characters, creating a tapestry of nineteenth-century American life during the Civil War that both pays homage to its famous literary predecessor and establishes itself as an excellent work of historical fiction." He concludes, "her fictional March family can stand proudly next to Louisa May Alcott's earlier creation." Anita Sama in USA Today insists that "the novel stands on its own." She determines that "imaginative extrapolations, done successfully as in March, illuminate the original works and allow tangential characters to claim their own full lives."
The reviewer for the Economist writes that Brooks "researched with great historical thoroughness," and though the "ceaseless goodness" of March and his family "does grow a little oppressive, Ms. Brooks merely imbues her pages with the same perfume that rises from Alcott's account of the saintly Marches." The reviewer finds that "the text is anything but sentimental about the civil war itself, whose stench and waste is depicted with brutal clarity" and predicts, "Alcott fans will find March both respectful and sufficiently full in its own right that it might have thrived without piggy-backing on" Little Women. The review concludes: the novel "enhances rather than appropriates its sister work from 1868. Louisa May Alcott would be well pleased."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Brooks takes the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) and creates his story in March, focusing on his Civil War experiences. Alcott's work chronicles the lives of his wife and children in Concord, Massachusetts, as they wait for March to come home.
- Brooks's historical novel Year of Wonders (2001) imagines the devastation of the plague on an English town in the seventeenth century and on a young housemaid's struggles to survive.
- Stephen Crane's classic novel The Red Badge of Courage, originally published in 1894, documents the horror of the Civil War and examines the complex ways that the participants responded to it. In his characterization of Henry Fleming, a young Union soldier, Crane explores questions of honor, cowardice, and humanity.
- Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (1997) presents the tale of a Confederate soldier named Inman, his turncoat journey home from the Civil War battlefields, and his bittersweet reunion with the woman who has waited for him. The novel cuts back and forth between Inman's difficult journey that tests his physical as well as his emotional strength and Ada's tale of her own struggles to survive on a farm without a man to help her.
- The Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic attributed to Homer, relates the adventures of its main character Odysseus as he travels home after fighting in the Trojan War. His journey is a difficult one, and his wife awaits him on the island of Ithaca. Readers may want to use Richard Lattimore's fine translation, The Odyssey of Homer (1999), which is available in a Perennial Classic edition.
Perkins is a professor of twentieth-century American and British literature and film. In this essay, she explores the difficult journey from innocence to experience.
In Geraldine Brooks's Pulitzer Prize-winning March, the title character goes off to war with the best of intentions: to offer aid and comfort to the Union soldiers who are engaged in the good fight for emancipation. John March is certain that he will be able to help in this noble cause and that it ultimately will be successful because its moral imperative cannot be questioned. As he faces the reality of war, however, his faith in humanity and himself is tested. Indeed, March's journey to war and back again becomes a painful trek from innocence to experience. During the first few months after his enlistment, when his idealistic vision begins to cloud, he admits, "I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was that day [I enlisted]; that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do." March discovers at the end of his journey that he will never be able to go back, and this understanding threatens to destroy him.
After serving as chaplain in the Union army for only a brief time, March is told by a soldier who sees his lack of knowledge about how some profit from the war, "Chaplain, you sure is an innocent man." At this point, March is an innocent although he has learned some harsh truths about the conditions of slavery and the fight to abolish it. His first experience with the true injustices of the system comes twenty years before the novel begins. Brooks flashes back to these early years in order to show March's maturation process and the development of his commitment to the abolitionist movement.
When March first arrives at the Clement plantation, he immediately has his notions of blacks tested when he meets Grace, who speaks and dresses with more style and intelligence than the whites in the small New England town where March grew up. He convinces himself that blacks on the Clement plantation have not suffered from the system of slavery after he observes what he thinks is "affection and trust" between Clement and his slaves, especially Grace who is the constant companion of his wife. March is certain that Clement is a kind man, too intelligent and moral to oppress his slaves.
The complexities in Clement's nature, however, begin to emerge during a discussion of the character and habits of blacks. March "winces" when Clement insists that "the only way to keep slaves honest is not to trust them." Yet March continues to listen, certain that this wise man will have some intelligent reason for his opinion. After Clement cites examples of lenient masters who were taken advantage of and sometimes murdered by their slaves, March protests that slavery causes immoral behavior, which is not inherent in the black person's nature. Clement agrees in part with his assessment, insisting that he does not believe that blacks are wicked, but he insists they are just children who do not know any better. Thus, he claims, the system of slavery works because it is the duty of whites to act as "stern father" to teach blacks how to be moral. March is able to accept this judgment since it fits more with his mission to teach and to save souls. He also enjoys Clement's company and his hospitality and wants to believe that the man shows good judgment. (The irony that Clement is literally the father of the slave called Grace is not revealed until later.)
Taken in by a kind of benevolent dictatorship, March "felt fortunate" in Clement's company, "flattered by his attention, overcome by his wisdom, and thrilled to be, even briefly, a part of this higher way of life." His opinion of Clement is tested, however, when March begins to observe the realities of a slave's life. He is pleased when Prudence, the cook's daughter, shows a keen desire and aptitude for reading and does not understand why educating a slave is against the law. When Prudence's mother fears her daughter will be whipped if she is caught, March tries to calm her, insisting that surely her master will allow him to teach Prudence since "he is a scholar and loves learning."
One evening March tests his naïve theory by suggesting to Clement that one of his slaves could help him with the plantation's accounts, March witnesses the racism in Clement's philosophy when the man insists that educating slaves would lead to insurrection and the butchering of whites. March now understands that men like Clement would never give up the power slavery affords them.
March, however, does not foresee the violent response that could erupt if a man like Clement were betrayed, and so March begins to teach Prudence surreptitiously. Once he is discovered, the veneer of wise, paternal oversight is shattered: Clement insists that March has "contaminated" his "property." March, who has begun to see the slaves as individuals rather than types, is appalled that Clement regards "the vivid person of Prudence and the dignity of Grace" as mere property. Subsequently, he blames himself for Grace's savage beating, feeling profound guilt over being "seduced by Clement's wealth and deceived by his false nobility."
His experiences on the Clement plantation cause March to be even more fervent in his belief that slavery should be abolished, a position that inspires him to enlist when the Civil War breaks out. Before the war, he had mixed feelings about the best course for abolitionists to take, especially after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. He admits that his response teetered "on a seesaw between repulsion and admiration." He wondered: "Was ever a course of action more reckless and savage? Was ever one so justifiable, so self-sacrificing? My mind was as confounded as it had been the day I heard the news."
When war breaks out, however, he sees a clearer path for himself and for the country, sure that courage and strength of conviction assure them success. As he faces his first battle, he thinks of his motive for enlisting: "moral greatness had little meaning without action to affect the moral end." This became, he declares, "the great argument that would animate my life; the selfsame argument that has brought me to these wintery ridges." Immediately, however, his idealistic vision begins to cloud when his unit must swim across a river to escape their enemies. March promises a young injured soldier, "I will get you across," but fails, discovering that even the best intentions do not guarantee victory.
As March faces the horror of the battlefield and of the hospital were men die in his arms, he discovers "how often it is that an idea that seems bright bossed and gleaming in its clarity when examined in a church, or argued over with a friend in a frosty garden, becomes clouded and murk-stained when dragged out into the field of actual endeavor."
March regains some of his idealistic vision when he is reassigned to Oak Landing, seeing himself as part of "this first great experiment of equality." When he first arrives and quizzes Canning about the harsh treatment of his workers, the lack of doctors, and the poor living conditions, the latter notes, "you know exactly nothing." Again, March's vision becomes "clouded and murk-stained," this time when he is forced to recognize the economic realities of running such an experiment. His harshest lesson, however, is learned when the Confederates raid the plantation. Still holding on to his belief in the basic humanity of man, he declares to one of the workers, "the Confederate soldier is a hard and desperate fighter, but he is not a savage. There are rules, even in war." The worker gives him "a look that combined pity and exasperation" as he explains that the men he has seen "sure enough don't follow no rules." As March soon discovers, neither he nor the Confederate soldiers follow the rules: They engage in torture, and he cannot summon the courage to stop them.
Daniel Shealy, in his review of the novel for the New England Quarterly writes, "Brooks makes this idealistic man grope deeply in the darkness of his own conscience, a battle more intense, more significant, perhaps, than any he witnessed in the war." March blames himself for several tragedies that he witnesses—the soldier who does not make it across the river, the savage whipping of Grace, and the torture of Canning—and comes to believe both he and his idealistic vision have failed. Both Grace and Marmee insist that he is not responsible for the suffering he has observed and convince him to find the strength to live for his family. Yet when he returns home, he declares, "I felt like an imposter," as if "this was the house of another man … 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."
The novel ends with March's resolve "to live in the quick world," but he knows "the ghosts of the dead would be ever at hand." As March hides his face "in the gathering darkness" in his family's parlor, Brooks shows the compelling portrait of the damage done by a shattered dream, especially one that focuses on the inherent value of self.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on March, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2008.
Block, Marta Segal, Review of March, in Booklist, Vol. 101, No. 11, February 1, 2005, p. 938.
Brooks, Geraldine, March, Penguin Books, 2006.
Mallon, Thomas, "Pictures from a Peculiar Institution," in New York Times Book Review, March 27, 2005, p. 11.
Review of March, in Economist, Vol. 374, No. 8419, March 26, 2005, p. 84.
Review of March, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 73, No. 1, January 1, 2005, p. 5.
Review of March, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 251, No. 51, December 20, 2004, p. 34.
Sama, Anita, "Little Women' from Father's Point of View," in USA Today, March 17, 2005, p. 04d.
Schwarz, Christina, "Finds and Flops," in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 295, No. 3, April 2005, p. 115.
Shealy, Daniel, Review of March, in New England Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 1, March 2006, pp. 164, 165.
Bial, Raymond, The Underground Railroad, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Stirring photographs accompany eye-witness accounts of the perilous journeys taken on the Underground Railroad, the term for a series of sites that operated as safe havens for slaves escaping to freedom in the North.
Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vintage, 1986.
In this trilogy that was adapted by Foote and Ken Burns into a popular PBS miniseries, Foote chronicles the historical facts of the war and brings a novelist's sensibility to his characterization of many of those who were affected by it.
Harrold, Stanley, The American Abolitionists, Longman, 2000.
This work, part of the Seminar Studies in History series, traces the abolitionist movement in the United States from its beginnings in the eighteenth century to the end of the Civil War in 1865. Included in the text are analyses of the major issues as well as important documents concerning the movement.
Wagner, Margaret E., and Gary Gallagher, The American Civil War: 365 Days, Harry N. Abrams, 2006.
This book gathers together over five hundred photographs, lithographs, drawings, cartoons, posters, maps, and letters from the war, covering a wide range of subjects, including politics, battles, slavery, and the treatment of women and civilians during this period.
march1 / märch/ • v. [intr.] walk in a military manner with a regular measured tread: three companies of soldiers marched around the field. ∎ walk or proceed quickly and with determination: without a word she marched from the room. ∎ [tr.] force (someone) to walk somewhere quickly: she gripped Rachel's arm and marched her out through the doors. ∎ walk along public roads in an organized procession to protest about something: antigovernment protesters marched today through major cities they planned to march on Baton Rouge. ∎ fig. (of something abstract) proceed or advance inexorably: time marches on. • n. [usu. in sing.] an act or instance of marching: the relieving force was more than a day's march away. ∎ a piece of music composed to accompany marching or with a rhythmic character suggestive of marching. ∎ a procession as a protest or demonstration: a protest march. ∎ fig. the progress or continuity of something abstract that is considered to be moving inexorably onward: Marx's theory of the inevitable march of history. PHRASES: march to (the beat of) a different drummer inf. consciously adopt a different approach or attitude from the majority of people; be unconventional. on the march marching: the army was on the march at last. march2 • n. (usu. Marches) a frontier or border area between two countries or territories, esp. between England and Wales or (formerly) England and Scotland: the Welsh Marches. ∎ (the Marches) a region of east central Italy, between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea; capital, Ancona. Italian name Marche . • v. [intr.] (march with) rare (of a country, territory, or estate) have a common frontier with.
March1 / märch/ • n. the third month of the year, in the northern hemisphere usually considered the first month of spring: the work was completed in March | [as adj.] the March issue of the magazine.
So vb. border upon. XIV. — OF. marchir.
Hence (or — F. marche) march sb. XVI.