I probably should have written this review right after I finished the book. It might have squeaked by with two stars, but the longer I thought about Geraldine Brooks’ March, the angrier I got.
First of all, memo to white people. Please stop writing novels about The Civil War. It’s been done to death, and you always, always manage to be really insulting about black people even while you’re clearly thinking you’re super-enlightened and fair and balanced. It’s especially egregious if the whole point of your book is supposed to be how a man learns that black slaves are people, not just props in his crusade of self-righteous Transcendentalist bullshit.
I had seen this book recommended somewhere, and had loved Little Women in my youth. I still enjoy the book, although its message of womanly virtue is pretty stifling and anti-feminist. So the idea of a novel that fills in what Mr. March (husband of Marmee and father to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) got up to before being wounded and sent home from active duty as a Union Army chaplain was intriguing. It’s still intriguing, and I hope that perhaps one day, someone will get around to writing it.
What we get instead is an account that borrows liberally from the life of Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), so much so that the March family history is seriously altered in ways that don’t hold up compared to the original novel. Brooks makes the March home a stop on the Underground Railroad, which is plausible, but not possible, considering that the four chatty, candid March girls surely would have talked about it amongst themselves, much as Marmee does in an early scene with Ralph Waldo Emerson and other like-minded friends. Much as Transcendentalists irritate me, Brooks does work those 19th-century hippies into the story pretty seamlessly, and her notion to introduce anti-slavery firebrand John Brown as the friend who made off with the family fortune also works well.
Apart from these details, the book is emotionally manipulative crap. Mr. March begins the book as an annoying vegetarian peddler, who doesn’t see anything particularly wrong with slavery until the “well-spoken” mixed-race slave he is lusting after is whipped for asking Mr. March to teach a young slave girl to read. Thus he morphs into an annoying, successful vegetarian peddler with aspirations to the clergy who chases the young Margaret Day (later Marmee) to the liberal enclave of Concord, Massachusetts. After losing all his money to John Brown (Mr. March thought donating to the anti-slavery cause would make Marmee think of him as a hero), he enlists with the Yanks at the age of forty, only to annoy the living crap out of everyone with his weird, new-Agey, blasphemous version of God, his pacifism, and his sympathy for Negroes. A run-in with the beautiful Grace (the aforementioned slave) leads to Mr. March almost cheating on his wife. Although he chooses to be faithful, it’s not before a superior has caught him in a compromising position and ships him off to help out at a plantation taken over by a Northerner in Mississippi, which ends in the extreme injury and illness that occurs in Little Women.
At this point, Marmee pipes up with the narrative, as her husband has had to momentarily surrender his annoying first-person POV to a terrible fever. She’s a thousand times more interesting than her husband, and hints at fissures in their wedded bliss that her idealistic husband has neglected to notice in the previous pages (i.e. she was not impressed by his donations to John Brown or proud of him for volunteering for the army). Alas, Marmee quickly gets mired down in her husband’s plotline and runs into Grace, who is conveniently acting as a nurse at the hospital in Washington, DC, where Mr. March is convalescing. A whole soap opera confrontation ensues, and Grace comes across as a beautiful, saintly woman who doesn’t act black at all, so Marmee totally understands why her husband would be attracted to her (barf). Marmee kind of forgives Mr. March for kind of cheating on her, then she has to rush back to Concord because Beth has scarlet fever (spoiler: she lives, but not for long). Mr. March drags his feet about going home because he’s got PTSD and he’s still kind of in love with Grace. He tries to convince her to let him come with her to work with the newly freed Southern blacks that are pouring into the North, but she tells him that they don’t need his help, and will he please just stop bugging her?
Mr. March finally heads home and internally whines that while his daughters are all babbling about how much they’ve changed while their father has been away, no one has bothered to ask how the war has changed Mr. March!!!! And scene. Seriously. That’s where it ends. 300 pages of weird racial fetishization and insensitivity, and we don’t even get to see how this nutjob acclimates to life after the war or the events of the second half of Little Women? BOO. NO STARS.
I get that white people have problems relating to black people, even in the present day. But there’s something about Brooks’ narrative that just grates, as if the outdated, well-meaning racism of Mr. March are the views she herself espouses today. After all, why couldn’t Mr. March fall in love with a black woman who wasn’t mixed race and educated like Grace? I haven’t heard that story so many times before. In her afterword, Brooks mentions wanting to show that Marmee wasn’t such a goody-goody, to which I replied, “Then why didn’t you just write a book called Marmee and spare us the noble savage routine?!”
The moral of the story is, read about Bronson Alcott if you’re into Bronson Alcott and read Little Women if you’re into Little Women. Leave this one in the bargain bin where it belongs.