Saturday, July 19, 2008

March by Geraldine Brooks

Near the end of the first chapter, I nearly flung this book against the wall in disgust. How could an Australian immigrant tell such a fetid, disgusting story about the most horrible episode in American history -- slavery. More importantly, how could such a tale of happy, well-cared for slaves win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction? My own disbelief in the answers to these two questions is the only thing that kept me reading.

When I finished, my disgust was even greater -- for an entirely different reason. I continue to marvel at the brutality, the horror, the inhumanity of one human being against another, simply because of skin color. After Cold Mountain, after Mudbound, after The Life of Frederick Douglas, after slave narratives I have read, I simply cannot get my mind around the capacity of sentient human beings for torture, murder, rape, and mutilation.

What started out as a pleasant little tale about Mr. March, who built his fortune as an itinerant peddler in Virginia in the 1840s, quickly descended into the maelstrom of slavery in the antebellum, and Civil War-ravaged, South.

I can’t help reflecting on the death last week of Jesse Helms. Some allegedly good people of North Carolina voted this man into Congress and Senate election after election, despite his openly bigoted and racist views. Then I remember Strom Thurmond, David Duke, and others too numerous to list. Unfortunately, no one, who shares the views of these despicable individuals, is likely to read this novel, or if they did, would they be moved by it in the slightest. I can hear them now, “Propaganda!” “Nonsense!” and “Bull shit!” Even more ominously, “Who cares?” and “Get over it.”

I hope we never forget.

The first two-thirds of the story is a first person account told by Mr. March (of Little Women fame), who leaves his family to join soldiers, as a chaplain, and heads south as the Civil War begins. March recalls his adventures as a young man in Virginia. These memories startlingly return to him following a battle in the early days of the war. Confederate troops rout some Union soldiers, who cross a river and come to Oak Landing, a plantation March once visited on his travels. Although the place is physically changed, Grace, one of the slaves he knew then, is still there, caring for Mr. Clement, the owner of the plantation and Grace.

Loosely based on the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Brooks also drew on real life experiences of Alcott’s abolitionist father, Bronson, recounted in his letters and journals. In an afterword, Brooks explains the shift in time from the journals to the novel. LMA sets her story in the early days of the war, but Brooks advances her novel about a year.

March struggles with ideals and principles, while desperately trying to do some good in the chaos of the retreat near Oak Landing. Sometimes his principles work; sometimes they don’t, but his mixed results are overshadowed time and again by tragedy.

It is hard to believe the horror that must have been the Civil War, but Brooks does a masterful job of telling this story in a 19th century voice complete with semi-colons. March compares favorably with the tone provided by Ken Burns’ quoting of letters and diaries in his marvelous documentary on the Civil War. In one typical passage, Brooks writes,

“I found her in the pleasance, pacing the muddy brookside, ruining what I knew to be her last pair of decent boots. I saw to my dismay that the storm had not yet broken. I had learned the meteorology of Marmee’s temper: the plunging air pressure as a black cloud gathered, blotting out the radiance of her true nature; the noisy thunder of her rage; and finally relief of a wild and heavy rain – tears, in copious cataracts, followed by a slew of resolutions to reform. But the dark cast of her expression told me we were still within the thunderhead, and as I approached she confirmed this by raising her voice to me” (130).

Nineteenth century novels are always a favorite of mine, so I was at home in these pages. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, a runaway slave, who I suspect may have been Harriet Tubman, all make cameo appearances.

Not as intense as Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, but a great story, I read it in about two afternoons. As the story sped to the end, I could not put it down. This story needs to be remembered, and everyone should read it. Five stars.

--Chiron, 7/19/08

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