If you were once a child and are female, someone probably gave you Little Women at some point. Whether you read it or not is another thing.
I read it. But I also read every word on cereal boxes as I crunched away at breakfast and was consequently the only eight-year-old to be familiar with terms like “butylated hydroxyanisole” and “red #40.”
I’m much more picky about my books (and my cereal) these days. It’s hard for me to remember Little Women, but if it’s anything like March, it was probably so-so, and it was certainly not Pulitzer-worthy. But let me explain.
“Tl;dr” is a pretty good summary of how you should approach this book. No, I’m sorry, it really isn’t that bad. I’ll get more objective for you.
Here’s some necessary background: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and their mother Marmee were the heroes of the book Little Women, written by 19th century author Louisa May Alcott. Largely absent from the picture is the father’s experience. He went off to take part in the Civil War and returned when Beth fell ill.
March is meant to be an expansion on Little Women, telling the story of that father. It alternates between (a.) documenting his rather brutal and traumatizing experience as a radically abolitionist chaplain in the army and (b.) sharing background material from his younger years. It also includes letters to his wife, which describe mostly the changing of the seasons and the physical surroundings, pointedly leaving out the gruesomeness of the war. The book is written in the first person, from March’s point of view. Except when it switches to Marmee’s point of view, which happens near the end for a few chapters. Yep. Lots of narrative-technique fidgeting going on here.
Sorry, back to objective.
The main themes of the book are war and slavery, with a bit of family sprinkled in.
Here is where I have the most praise for the author. Mid-19th century literature is what I grew up reading (you know, when I wasn’t busy with nutrition labels), and the style of writing feels like home to me. Usually when a contemporary writer tries to mimic the tone of this time period, it’s groan-inducing. But Geraldine Brooks, author of March, did a splendid job of affecting the tone of an 1860s writer. She either grew up on the stuff too, or she did a great job studying the phrasing of the time period.
But tone isn’t exactly the same as language, though naturally word choice is essential to tone. The language surrounding the issue of slavery and race relations didn’t ring authentic. Even the most vehement of abolitionists of the Civil War era would have used different words than were used here. Now, that’s forgivable. No one wants their book to be taken out of context, and if Brooks had decided to be more true to the time, her book could easily be taken not as a period piece but instead as a offensive book written in the 2000s by an ignorant white lady. But I think the word choice here, while judicious, was the tip of the iceberg. There’s a problem with the novel that runs deeper.
The main character, the patriarch of the March family, is not believable. He can talk the 1860s talk, but he’s clearly a character plucked from 2007 and placed into the time period, modern (educated) sentiments about equality/race and all. It’s as if he’s lived in an absolute vacuum. The treatment of African Americans as “other” never ceases to astound him, even after seeing it over and over. It’s absurd.
Certainly, the nature of the cruelty shown toward an entire race would have shocked insulated people in the north at that time. But no one was going to be surprised that slaves were treated differently than white people. I mean, it’s the sad truth that you can’t even expect that African Americans will be treated with equality today, except for in the most progressive circles.
I don’t want to go into it too much, but feel free to read yourself and see what you think. March expresses ideas that are totally not in keeping with the time, all while being continually shocked when people didn’t feel the same or couldn’t see what he saw. It just isn’t accurate. More than that, it isn’t imaginative to just take what any civilized, modern-day person would think a turn it into the basis for the hero of a Civil War novel.
It’s not just him that’s the problem with Brooks’ character writing. She threw in Thoreau and Emerson, for reasons explained at the end: Alcott’s own family was close with the Thoreaus and Emersons. But these giants of American history seemed tossed in as an afterthought, having little to do with the actual book. These historical figures also seemed to be written in with the goal of making them come alive to the reader, and this intention (and not the coordinating desired result) comes through with every word. I can just imagine the author thinking “I am a fiction writer! I shall reveal to the reader not a crusty figure from a textbook but a person with flashing eyes (every amateur fiction writer’s favorite, along with “flowing tresses”) and quirky mannerisms!” ~Holds pen high above paper, descends with flourish.~
All right. I’m being very hard on this book. It wasn’t that bad. I finished it.
I liked reading about Rev. March growing up. The first third or so of the book is the best part.
Though I wasn’t crazy about the Emerson and Thoreau characters, John Brown entered the story in an interesting way. I thought that character was pretty well written, and if you know the Little Women backstory about losing a fortune, this was a great integration with the plot.
Who Should Read the Book
If you’re a fan of British writing of this time period and you’re not quite as familiar with American history or don’t mind a little leeway with it, this isn’t a bad book. The writing style is true, and most people probably won’t have as much of an issue with the book as I did, since I know myself to be cantankerous and amazingly picky. Oh, and if you love Little Women, this is probably a great addition to your library. It will be fun for you to see how Brooks filled in some missing pieces.
For What It’s Worth (My Opinion)
The intention behind the book was good, and I’ve largely focused on my complaints. So here’s the positive stuff. I think it portrayed the attitude of most toward slaves and abolitionists quite accurately. It even threw in some of the more nuanced issues, such as why slave owners viewed reading and writing as dangerous. And it certainly portrayed the atrocities of war and slavery in a way that was accurate–upsettingly so. It’s just that March himself, you should know, isn’t really a reflection of the time. Not from what I’ve read, anyway.
I wouldn’t read anything else from Brooks, personally. I just can’t forgive the flaws in the book’s namesake character. The book wasn’t awful, but there are too many other things out there.
Sorry for the absence. I’ve got some more things in the pipeline, including a “looking forward to 2016 books” post, and, appropriately, a post on the pains of content creation.