March is based in no small degree on the absent father in Little Women, who was himself based on the author’s own father, Bronson Alcott; Brooks melds the two men, one real and one fictional, into the same character. As with Finn, I suspect that readers will appreciate March a great deal more if they’ve familiarized themselves with the original work of fiction upon which this book is based–in this case, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
The framing story, and the bulk of the novel, consists of with Mr. March’s service as chaplain for a Northern group of soldiers during the Civil War, with flashbacks describing his work as a travelling salesman in his youth and his ill fated encounter with the family whose plantation was confiscated to serve as a Union hospital, his involvement with John Brown and failed business deals thereby, his marriage and children1. The family has strong abolitionist leanings, and has been part of the Underground Railroad for some time; not surprisingly, when the Civil War begins, Papa March abandons his family for service in the Union Army, as he feels compelled to do something more concrete and immediate than continue his work in the North. Throughout the book, March struggles with his abolitionist convictions; he has difficulty reconciling his desire to hasten the end of slavery with the conflicting wish to avoid the bloodshed necessarily resulting from a war.
Not surprisingly, one subplot that left me squirming uncomfortably was Mr. March’s efforts to mold the hot-tempered Marmee into the proper model of womanhood in mid-nineteenth century America: gently spoken, demure, emotionally controlled and keeping in the background of family decisions. Marmee does exhibit a bit of spine later in the book, in a not terribly well labeled chapter near the end, but on the whole, the discrepancies between Mr. March’s behavior and what he expects of Marmee, the disjoint between what he expects her reaction to his joining the army to be and what her response actually is, society’s expectation of women and what Marmee thought just left me uncomfortable. That said, I’m inclined to think that Louisa May Alcott just might have sympathized with Brooks’ take on Marmee; Alcott did, I believe, base the rebellious Jo on herself, after all.
The whole vegan dogooder aspect of the book does not, however, surprise me all that much. Bronson Alcott began as an educational reformer–some of his ideas were decent enough in this arena–but overall, he was pretty much a precursor to the militant vegan PETA activist type that can be found picketing wherever fur coats can be found. The mid to late nineteenth century in the United States saw an upsurge in utopian movements; the Shaker movement might be the best known now, but American Transcendentalism1 was another large one at the time–it was an offshoot of the Unitarian Church of the time. For a brief period in late 1842, Bronson Alcott and several of his acquaintances attempted to form a self-sustaining agricultural/religious commune, Fruitlands; they wore only linen and canvas2, ate only wholemeal bread, fruit and water3, eschewing even the use of draft animals to farm their land and manure as fertilizer. Needless to say, this didn’t work out too terribly well, though it didn’t help that the group moved onto the farm too late to plant much of anything that first year, and their reluctance to engage in commercial enterprises to tide them over until the farm was up and running (and beyond) as the Shakers did spelled a swift end to this particular attempt as a utopian society.
The book’s ending seems a bit self-conciously post-modern to me, though even that may fit: in the end, the slave Grace Clement sends Papa March packing home to his family in Massachusetts rather than let him continue serving the abolitionists’ cause by remaining in the army because she feels that the newly freed black community does not need the help of the white as the driven snow dogooders from the North–March can do more good within his own family preaching acceptance among the thoroughly Caucasian communities there:
She cut me off again, angrily this time.
“We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you ever will be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people must learn how to manage its own destiny…If you sincerely want to help us go back to Concord and work with your own people. Write sermons that will prepare your neighbors to accept a world where black and white may one day stand as equals…Go home. Be a father to your daughters. That, at least you can do. They are the ones who need you.”
She didn’t say it, but the unspoken words hung in the air between us. They might need me: she, most definitely, did not.
I wasn’t as crazy about this novel as I thought I was going to be. Both Alice I Have Been and Finn expanded on the central character in a more believable fashion than March. More specifically, Finn refers back to a much darker book which is itself about a similar time in American history; Little Women is a bit of saccharine glurge to begin with, and Geraldine Brooks has, so far as I can tell, produced an only mildly edgier version of that sanitized original. It’s worth reading. It deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s just that I prefer Finn, though I can understand that many people would recoil from it.
1for more information: here, here and here.
2leather and wool are animal products, silk results in the death of the worms…and cotton was worst of all as at the time it was harvested using human slave labor.
3not sure why beans weren’t part of the diet, but the rest is pretty straightforward vegan diet stuff