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Concord, Massachusetts cleric John March, a vegetarian, pacifist, and passionate abolitionist, recently became a chaplain in the Union Army. The novel begins in 1861 with a letter to his wife, Marmee, and their four young daughters. Despite having just lived through a brutal battle in Virginia—he’s haunted by the gruesome sights he’s seen, and confused by the moral numbness of his fellow soldiers—he keeps the letter cheerful, and empty.

As the war wages, March’s story leaps back and forth in time. He relives his romance with fiery Marmee and his introduction to the abolitionists, and reveals the cause of his family’s relative poverty. Then there’s Grace, a mulatto slave he met 20 years before, whom he finds again at a cotton plantation where he’s been assigned to teach freed slaves. How much of this life will March share with his wife? How could she possibly understand what happened in this godforsaken war?

Viking. 280 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670033359

Critical Themes

A new take on an old book: Much-beloved works of literature are undergoing a renaissance. In Sena J. Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, the woman behind Moby Dick speaks. Nancy Rawles’s My Jim ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2005) is told by the wife of Huck Finn’s pal. Now the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women shares his side of the story. Brooks invents the character of John March using Alcott’s untraditional real-life father as a model (see sidebar). The outline may be Alcott’s, but Brooks makes it her own.

Truth in marriage: The letters March sends home neglect huge upheavals in his experience, from blood spilled to his earthly desires. But how much can a person hide from his life partner? What are the risks involved? In the Civil War, the gap between the men who fought and the women left behind was virtually unbridgeable. This novel makes the schism blindingly clear by granting Marmee a section to voice her perspective on her husband’s changes.

Stand up for abolition: John March worked in the Underground Railroad. He was friends with abolitionist John Brown. And now, fighting for the Union’s cause, he must cope with his regiment’s apathy toward the fate of the slaves. The novel also touches on another lesser-known story of the war: the scurrilous treatment of former slaves after Union emancipation.

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"… a very great book. I believe it breathes new life into the historical fiction genre, the borrowing-a-character-from-the-deep-past phenomenon. … I believe it honors the best of the imagination." Beth Kephart

Denver Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[It] reads like a memoir written in vibrant detail by a thoughtful, moral man. … It is the feeling that the reader is witness to truth that elevates March beyond a gimmick to an engrossing, thought-provoking tale." Robin Vidimos

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"What becomes increasingly fascinating in this novel is the complicated nature of idealism in the real world and the way that stress twists March’s conscience and warps his once pure relationship with the woman he loves." Ron Charles

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… a beautifully wrought story about how war dashes ideals, unhinges moral certainties and drives a wedge of bitter experience and unspeakable memories between husband and wife." Heller McAlpin

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"… Brooks has written a gripping story of an impossible time, and simultaneously a neat deconstruction and reconstruction of one of American literature’s best-known families." Maya Muir

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Brooks unflinchingly depicts blatant and brutal racism in Union and Confederate soldiers, and the vivid description of battles and atrocities is equal to any found in The Red Badge of Courage …" Joan Hinkemeyer

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he novel stands on its own, with March a conflicted hero in a time of conflict on his way home." Anita Sama

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"March has … clarity of vision, fine, meticulous prose, the unexpected historical detail, [and] a life-sized protagonist caught inside an unimaginably huge event. ... [a] seamless marriage of research and imagination." Karen Joy Fowler

Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
" [Brooks] comes away with a disturbing, supple and deeply satisfying story, put together with craft and care and imagery worthy of a poet." Karen R. Long

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… a successfully edifying tale of the anti-slavery movement leading up to and during the Civil War, but it is also the smart and poignant story of a marriage …." Amy Canfield

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"Brooks’s depiction of how March’s meek kindness, along with the social constraints of the period, gradually suffocate [his wife] into playing the role of Little Women’s Marmee is all too believable." Madison Smartt Bell

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"In March, the ferocious nemeses conjured by Brooks are war and slavery, which … end up prompting the author and her characters toward a prolonged moral exhibitionism." Thomas Mallon

Critical Summary

By throwing the dreamer John March into America’s Civil War, Brooks explores in detail how one man struggles to live honestly, let alone live, through wartime. Her second novel is "a moving and inspirational tour de force," says the Los Angeles Times critic Heller McAlpin, and he’s certainly not alone. Reviewers were almost universally won over by, and emotionally invested in, this memoir-like tale. Brooks doesn’t hesitate to plumb the morally gray complications of war; in fact, many critics call the darker undertones a significant and mature strength, especially when compared with Little Women.

Other pluses: minor characters are exquisitely rendered and include several real-life figures, and Brooks’s prose is lush and evocative. The writing style, while true to the time period, might strike some readers as overly elaborate, but it also demonstrates the author’s painstaking research.

Admittedly, Louisa May Alcott’s story has been labeled sentimental. So it’s no surprise that a few critics find some schmaltzy missteps in March. Grace’s storyline, in particular, has the feel of a historical romance. The New York Times critic Thomas Mallon calls the treatment of African-Americans throughout the novel "treacly and embarrassing," but he’s the only one to cite this problem. Overall, March offers a provoking, intimate portrait of life during wartime and the difficult questions we face about loyalty, morality, and love.