Filed under: Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Tags: books, civil war, geraldine brooks, historical fiction, history, literature, little women, louisa may alcott, march, reading
Owing to my strongly held (if vaguely defined) belief that history should be history and fiction should be fiction, with the exception of books that are openly exploring truthiness, I’ve never been a reader of historical fiction. Why, then, didn’t it occur to me that Geraldine Brooks’s March is not just a riff on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women but a work of historical fiction? Brooks writes from the point of view of Mr. March, who is absent for most of Alcott’s book because he’s at war, and briefly from the viewpoint of his wife, but her story isn’t just their story but also the wrapping in of countless events and people of the Civil War and that period.
Rachel at Books I Done Read wrote a review of Susan Hill’s Mrs. DeWinter (books that are not “riffing” off another book but blatantly stealing plots and characters because the author is too lazy to come up with any of her own: a topic for another day) wrote, “Only riff on excellent books if your riff is going to also be excellent.” Let’s make this the theme for this review.
To get this out of the way early, riffs on older books or stories fall into the camp of “things I think are shumë mirë, or awesome,” but I tend to limit this sort of reading to retellings of fairy tales rather than elaborations on more recent stories. This is an unfair if unintended limitation to place on my reading. When an author can take well-known characters and reshape and reimagine them in ways that add to the depth of the original work, it’s awesome, and there’s no reason a book that reimagines characters from Little Women shouldn’t be as awesome as, say, Kelly Link’s reimagining of a zillion fairy tales/Nancy Drew books. But like Rachel wrote, if you’re going to riff off a much loved book, you better make your riff amazing, and Geraldine Brooks doesn’t manage that.
March‘s prose is a little purple for me at times, which is part of the reason (if a small part; I have an increasingly high tolerance for okay-ish writing) my reading of this book was middling. See this part when March’s wife (so, the mom of all the Much Loved Little Women of Alcott’s book) is willing her husband, injured and in a hospital in Washington, D.C., to get better:
Hope, he said. So I hoped. I hoped so hard that Hope seemed to take corporeal form, my thoughts and wishes reaching out to him and wrapping themselves around him, as avidly as my body had wrapped around him when we both were young. I wanted to transplant my vivid spirit within his depleted one, to root out the memories that troubled his sleep and sow in their place a vision of every good moment we had spent together. So I sat by his bed, all day and into the evening, whispering reminiscences of sunlit days and crisp fall apples, of girlish laughter and great minds brilliant with new ideas. (255)
I know that one person’s purple prose is another’s lush description, but…this is pretty purple. And while it’s not the biggest problem I had with the book (which is more along the lines of, “It’s not history! But it’s also not only fiction!”), something about Brooks’s writing style kept me feeling outside of the text at all times. She writes about things I in theory, and in other books, find interesting – like March’s desire to go back home, not just to his wife and children but “also to the man of moral certainty that I was […]; that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do” (184), before he went to the war.
In the context of this book, though, I just didn’t care.
Brooks writes that she based the character of Mr. March on Alcott’s father, just as she based the characters from Little Women around those of her own family. As much as it annoyed me to see now-famous people popping up in the book as friends or acquaintances of March’s (Thoreau! Emerson! Nathaniel Hawthorne! John Brown!), Alcott’s father was acquainted with these people, so I feel I should tamp down on my complaints a little. Sometimes, though, and maybe this is symptomatic of it, Brooks tries to paint with too broad a brush, to encompass too many aspects of the war and life during and before the Civil War. There’s got to be slavery, rape, incest, black literacy, vegetarianism, connecting with nature, raising children, the meaning of war, the meaning of slavery, the complications of trying to end slavery, people being shot in knees, teaching former slaves to read and write, slaves who are fighting for the South, planting cotton, being a preacher, falling in love, falling in love again.
All these things may happen in a man’s life, but to all happen in the span of a 280-page novel was too much, as though Brooks was trying to fit in all the things she had thought about or had researched or that may have come up peripherally in Little Women or in the life of Alcott’s father or in the Civil War. Sometimes this leads to interesting things (like did you know that Thoreau invented improved ways of manufacturing pencils?), or a piece of powerful imagery, as when Mrs. March sees the incomplete Washington, D.C.:
…maybe the city is destined to be no more than this: ruins, merely, sinking back into the swamp; the shards of an optimistic moment when a few dreamers believed you could build a nation upon ideas such as liberty and equality. (215-216)
Even this is colored by a hint of over-the-topness, though. It’s interesting for the idea it raises, that America wasn’t always a sure thing, rather than for the image as it exists in the novel.
Brooks writes, in her afterword, that she uses history as a scaffolding for her stories. This is where I’m truly thrown, because what she does is not so much build off of a scaffolding, but create a rickety contraption of her own, with dates not matching those of Little Women (she shifts the action of her novel forward about a year, so that Mr. March can head to war at the appropriate moment), or of the Civil War (the privately leased cotton plantation March works on wouldn’t have existed until later in the year – certainly not in 1861), and with details taken and adjusted from the life of Alcott’s father to better fit her story. The literalist in me wants Brooks to choose just one scaffolding and stick to it, and truly form her story around it rather than shifting times back and forth in order to fit the story she wants to tell.
At end, the book isn’t a bad one – I’m not sorry I read it, and like I said, now I know that my no. 2 pencils are in part thanks to Thoreau – but it’s also not one that improves or reshapes my memories of Little Women, or that grows because of its ties to Alcott’s novel. It is a sometimes interesting riff off of Little Women, but not a vital or necessary one.