Monday, April 14, 2008

March by Geraldine Brooks

Several years ago, I fell in love with a book called Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, a gorgeous historical novel set in a “Plague Village” in England in the mid-1600’s. When Brooks won the Pulitzer in 2006 for her book March, a retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women from the POV of the largely absent patriarch of the March family, I knew I would eventually have to give it a read.

In order to appreciate March, it’s not essential that you’re familiar with the story of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, the little women of the original book. I have to admit that when I read Little Women in my teens, I was less enthralled than my mother had been—she’d lauded the book as being the most influential of her life, so much so that she changed her name briefly, I believe, to Beth, when she was a girl. I may be wrong about which little woman she emulated—young Mama-of-Lou was probably more Jo than the sensitive Beth, but that doesn’t ring a bell for me. (Lou, in seventh grade, changed her name to Mary for a year and still has report cards citing Mary’s success as proof.)

More essential is an understanding of the Civil War era of Louisa May Alcott’s young life, especially the philosophical underpinnings of New England during that time period. Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne make guest appearances and Mr. March’s character is deeply influenced by Alcott’s father, a radical, transcendentalist, abolitionist, vegetarian preacher from Concord, MA.

That being said, a reader who knows none of this will still welcome the expertly crafted, beautifully woven story of a man whose deeply held beliefs conflicted—sometimes violently— with the prevailing tide of his times.

March, for all of its history and philosophy, is a zippy read. I devoured it in less than two days. Brooks mimics the writers of Alcott’s era with rich descriptions of nature and emotion—the relationship between which echoes the relationships forged by New England transcendentalists. More modern, however, is the depth of pure passion related in the pages, passion not only in the romantic sense but also in the zeal for cause and conviction.

Mid-book, the novel takes a radical turn and shifts POV to another character. I had been so won over by Mr. March’s narration that I was at first angry and discomfited by being removed from a POV I had come to trust. But as I read on, the new perspective won me over, and I began to understand the reason behind the shift. I was afraid that the book had taken a turn for the worse, but instead ended up citing the twist as among the book’s many strengths.

I no longer remember the book’s competition for the 2006 Pulitzer, but I feel quite confident that it would have taken an extraordinary book to be more deserving than March.

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