“How often it is that an idea that seems bright bossed and gleaming in its clarity when examined in a church, or argued over with a friend in a frosty garden, becomes clouded and murk-stained when dragged out into a field of actual endeavor.”
Okay, my obsession with Little Women is winding down (that may or may not be true) with the conclusion of my most recent read. I feel a little bit like I missed the hype on this one (as in, the hype was occurring when I was in middle school, so I don’t actually feel that guilty). In 2006, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it currently has almost 52,000 ratings on Goodreads. This is a book with which people in the literary world have a sense of familiarity.
My first exposure to the writing of Geraldine Brooks was with her book Year of Wonders. I actually loved this book, a small account of the bubonic plague. It’s depressing, yes, but really good. Really good. Both Year of Wonders and People of the Book (published three years after March) have over 4 stars on Goodreads; that’s no small feat.
I will try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.
March is the story of the missing March family patriarch. It fills the spaces and answers the questions in the story of Little Women during the Civil War, the gaps in which Mr. March is absent from the family home in Concord. At the beginning of the book, Mr. March is serving as a chaplain for the Union army following the battle of Ball’s Bluff. As he sits down to write a letter to Marmee and his daughters at home, he finds that he is unable to share the honesty of his experiences with them and instead fills the letters with peaceful scenes and vague platitudes. This is a constant action throughout the book, right up to the injury that lands him in a Washington hospital.
Mr. March reflects frequently on his past throughout his narration. Following Ball’s Bluff*, he finds himself at a plantation he encountered years before; at this plantation, he is reunited with a slave woman (with whom he has a bit of a complicated history) named Grace. During his time here, he is given a bit of a wake up call: no one really likes him, and the other soldiers find him really disagreeable and upsetting. He provides virtually no comfort to the men in his company. A personal indiscretion adds to the fact that he is being transferred South. It is on this new assignment that he finds himself working directly with freed slaves in the Southern United States. Though they are free, they remain on the plantation as paid workers. The conditions remain horrible, and there is constant danger from guerilla fighters (mostly former plantation and slave owners) angered by the Northern army. As March works to improve these conditions and build relationships with these individuals, tragic events conspire. Ultimately, Mr. March ends up in a Washington hospital; if you have read Little Women, you will be familiar with the remainder of events.
*The story does jump back and forth between events, but spans from the summer of March’s 18th year to his illness during the Civil War (after which he returns to his “little women”)
There are a lot of things that I actually thought were brilliant about this book. The way that Brooks structured the story is one that I really appreciate; the story jumps from time period to time period. I also really appreciate the fact that the perspective shifted from Mr. March to Marmee as she travels to the hospital to visit her husband. Ordinarily, a perspective shift is something I love in a book, but the thing I genuinely appreciated was that provided two entirely different viewpoints on the same experiences. It describes how Mr. March made decisions because he felt that Marmee wanted that from him, while Marmee’s perspective shared that she stayed with him in spite of the fact that he made the very same decisions. I don’t want to talk about it much more because of the fact that I would like you to experience it on your own as a reader.
“I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women; march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.”
This book also mixes the fictional life of Mr. March with that of Louisa May Alcott’s father. Because Alcott based much of Little Women off of her own life, I found this to be appropriate and interesting.
The writing is beautiful, poetic, and atmospheric. It’s genuinely a breath-taking book to read, in spite of the fact that the content is (at best) difficult in places. It’s not necessarily an enjoyable read, but I do give it credit for it’s beauty and ingenuity.
Drum roll, please.
This book is not for everyone. It’s not a thriller. It’s not specifically romantic in nature. There’s definitely no humor. BUT, like I said before, there is some enchanting use of language. And if you love Little Women, as many book lovers do, I think it’s worth a shot. It’s not particularly long, but it’s also not a novel to be read in the course of an afternoon (though you definitely could if you felt like it).
If you are someone who:
- loved Little Women
- appreciates period novels about the Civil War
- likes books that have poetic language
- doesn’t mind a novel that takes a bit of time to gain momentum
- want to know more about the family of Louisa May Alcott
- like it when books mention other real-life authors and events
this could be a fantastic book for you!
Until next time, happy reading!