From Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has animated the character of the absent father, March, and crafted a story "filled with the ache of love and marriage and with the power of war upon the mind and heart of one unforgettable man" (Sue Monk Kidd). With "pitch-perfect writing" (USA Today), Brooks follows March as he leaves behind his family to aid the Union cause in the Civil War. His experiences will utterly change his marriage and challenge his most ardently held beliefs. A lushly written, wholly original tale steeped in the details of another time, March secures Geraldine Brooks's place as a renowned author of historical fiction.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.05(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky. A dipping sun gilded and brazed each raveling edge as if the firmament were threaded through with precious filaments. I pause there to mop my aching eye, which will not stop tearing. The line I have set down is, perhaps, on the florid side of fine, but no matter: she is a gentle critic. My hand, which I note is flecked with traces of dried phlegm, has the tremor of exhaustion. Forgive my unlovely script, for an army on the march provides no tranquil place for reflection and correspondence. (I hope my dear young author is finding time amid all her many good works to make some use of my little den, and that her friendly rats will not grudge a short absence from her accustomed aerie.) And yet to sit here under the shelter of a great tree as the men make their cook fires and banter together provides a measure of peace. I write on the lap desk that you and the girls so thoughtfully provided me, and though I spilled my store of ink you need not trouble to send more, as one of the men has shown me an ingenious receipt for a serviceable substitute made from the seasonís last blackberries. So am I able to send ìsweet wordsî to you!
Do you recall the marbled endpapers in the Spenser that I used to read to you on crisp fall evenings just such as this? If so, then you, my dearest one, can see the sky as I saw it here tonight, for the colors swirled across the heavens in just such a happy profusion.
And the blood that perfused the silted eddies of the boot-stirred river also formed a design that is not unlike those fine endpapers. Oróbetterólike that spill of carmine ink when the impatient hand of our little artist overturned the well upon our floorboards. But these lines, of course, I do not set down. I promised her that I would write something every day, and I find myself turning to this obligation when my mind is most troubled. For it is as if she were here with me for a moment, her calming hand resting lightly upon my shoulder. Yet I am thankful that she is not here, to see what I must see, to know what I am come to know. And with this thought I exculpate my censorship: I never promised I would write the truth.
I compose a few rote words of spousal longing, and follow these with some professions of fatherly tenderness: All and each of you I have in my mind, in parlor, study, chambers, lawn; with book or with pen, or hand in hand with sister dear, or holding talk the while of father, a long way off, and wondering where he is and how he does. Know that I can never leave you quite; for while my body is far away my mind is near and my best comfort is in your affection...Then I plead the press of my duties, closing with a promise soon to send more news.
My duties, to be sure, are pressing enough. There are needful men all around me. But I do not immediately close my lap desk. I let it lie across my knees and continue to watch the clouds, their knopped masses blackened now in the almost lightless sky. No wonder simple men have always had their gods dwell in the high places. For as soon as a man lets his eye drop from the heavens to the horizon, he risks setting it on some scene of desolation.
Downriver, men of the burial party wade chest deep to retrieve bodies snagged on fallen branches. Contrary to what I have written, there is no banter tonight, and the fires are few and ill tended, so that the stinging smoke troubles my still-weeping eye. There is a turkey vulture staring at me from a limb of sycamore. They have been with us all day, these massive birds. Just this morning, I had thought them stately, in the pearly predawn light, perched still as gargoyles, wings widespread, waiting for the rising sun. They did not move through all the long hours of our Potomac crossing, first to our muster on this island, which sits like a giant barge in the midstream, splicing the wide water into rushing narrows. They watched, motionless still, as we crossed to the farther shore and made our silent ascent up the slippery cow path on the face of the bluff. Later, I noticed them again. They had taken wing at last, inscribing high, graceful arcs over the field. From up there, at least, our predicament must have been plain: the enemy in control of the knoll before us, laying down a withering fire, while through the woods to our left more troops moved in stealthy file to flank us. As chaplain, I had no orders, and so placed myself where I believed I could do most good. I was in the rear, praying with the wounded, when the cry went up: Great God, they are upon us!
I called for bearers to carry off the wounded men. One private, running, called to me that any who tried it would be shot full of more bullets than he had fingers and toes. Silas Stone, but lightly injured then, was stumbling on a twisted knee, so I gave him my arm and together we plunged into the woods, joining the chaos of the rout. We were trying to recover the top of the cow pathóthe only plain way down to the riverówhen we came upon another turkey vulture, close enough to touch it. It was perched on the chest of a fallen man and turned its head sharply at our intrusion. A length of organ, glossy and brown, dangled from its beak. Stone raised his musket, but he was already so spent that his hands shook violently. I had to remind him that if we didnít find the river and get across it, we, too, would be vulture food.
We thrashed our way out of the thicket atop a promontory many rods short of the cow path. From there, we could see a mass of our men, pushed by advancing fire to the very brow of the bluff. They hesitated there, and then, of a sudden, seemed to move as one, like a herd of beasts stampeded. Men rolled, leaped, stumbled over the edge. The drop is steep: some ninety feet of staggered scarps plunging to the river. There were screams as men, bereft of reason, flung themselves upon the heads and bayonets of their fellows below. I saw the heavy boot of one stout soldier land with sickening force onto the skull of a slight youth, mashing the bone against rock. There was no point now in trying to reach the path, since any footholds it might once have afforded were worn slick by the frenzied descent. I crawled to the edge of the promontory and dangled from my hands before dropping hard onto a narrow ledge, all covered with black walnuts. These sent me skidding. Silas Stone rolled and fell after me. It wasnít until we reached the water-laved bank that he told me he could not swim.
The enemy was firing from the cliff top by then. Some few of our men commenced tying white rags to sticks and climbing back up to surrender. Most flung themselves into the river; many, in their panic, forgetting to shed their cartridge boxes and other gear, the weight of which quickly dragged them under. The only boats were the two mud scows that had ferried us across. For these, men flung themselves until they were clinging as a cluster of bees dangling from a hive, and slipping off in clumps, four or five together. Those that held on were plain targets and did not last long.
I dragged off my boots and made Stone do the same, and bade him hurl his musket far out, to the deepest channel, so as to put it from reach of our enemies. Then we plunged into the chill water and struck out toward the island. I thought we could wade most of the way, for crossing at dawn, the poles had seemed to go down no significant depth. But I had not accounted for the strength of the current, nor the cold. ìI will get you across,î I had promised him, and I might have done, if the bullet hadnít found him, and if he hadnít thrashed so, and if his coat, where I clutched it, hadnít been shoddily woven. I could hear the rip of thread from thread, even over the tumbling water and the yelling. His right hand was on my throat, his fingersócallused tradesmanís fingersódepressing the soft, small bones around my windpipe. His left hand clutched for my head. I ducked, trying vainly to refuse him a grip, knowing he would push me under in his panic. He managed to snatch a handful of my hair, his thumb, as he did so, jabbing into my left eye. I went under, and the mass of him pushed me down, deep. I jerked my head back, felt a burn in my scalp as a handful of hair ripped free, and my knee came up, hard, into something that gave like marrow. His hand slid from my throat, the jagged nail of his middle finger tearing away a piece of my skin.
We broke the surface, spewing red-brown water. I still had a grip on his tearing jacket, and if he had stopped his thrashing, even then, I might have seized a stouter handful of cloth. But the current was too fast there, and it tugged apart the last few straining threads. His eyes changed when he realized. The panic just seemed to drain away, so that his last look was a blank, unfocused thingóthe kind of stare a newborn baby gives you. He stopped yelling. His final sound was more of a long sigh, only it came out as a gargle because his throat was filling with water. The current bore him away from me feet first. He was prone on the surface for a moment, his arms stretched out to me. I swam hard, but just as I came within reach a wave, turning back upon a sunken rock, caught his legs and pushed the lower half of his body under, so that it seemed he stood upright in the river for a moment. The current spun him round, a full turn, his arms thrown upward with the abandon of a Gypsy dancer. The firing, high on the bluff, had loosed showers of foliage, so that he swirled in concert with the sunshine-colored leaves. He was face to face with me again when the water sucked him under. A ribbon of scarlet unfurled to mark his going, widening out like a sash as the current carried him, down and away. When I dragged myself ashore, I still had the torn fragment of wet wool clutched in my fist.
I have it now: a rough circle of blue cloth, a scant six inches across. Perhaps the sum total of the mortal remains of Silas Stone, wood turner and scholar, twenty years old, who grew up by the Blackstone River and yet never learned to swim. I resolved to send it to his mother. He was her only son.
I wonder where he lies. Wedged under a rock, with a thousand small mouths already sucking on his spongy flesh. Or floating still, on and down, on and down, to wider, calmer reaches of the river. I see them gathering: the drowned, the shot. Their hands float out to touch each other, fingertip to fingertip. In a day, two days, they will glide on, a funeral flotilla, past the unfinished white dome rising out of its scaffolds on a muddy hill in Washington. Will the citizens recognize them, the brave fallen, and uncover in a gesture of respect? Or will they turn away, disgusted by the bloated mass of human rot?
I dragged a hand through my hair, which has dried out in tangled mats, like discarded corn silks at a husking. Even to raise my arm for that slight effort is a misery. Every muscle aches. My aunt was right, perhaps, in her bitter denunciation of my coming here: the cusp of a manís fortieth year is no season for such an enterprise as this. And yet what manner of man would I be, who has had so much to say in the contest of words, if now I shirked this contest of blood? So I will stand here with those who stand in arms, as long as my legs can support me. But, as a private from Millbury observed to me today, ìVirginia is a hard road, reckon.î
I stowed the lap desk in my rucksack. We had left the main part of our gear here on the island, but my blanket was sodden from the use of it to dry myself and to blot my soaking clothes. Still, there is some warmth in wool, wet or no. I carried it to a youth who lay, curled and keening, on the riverbank. The boy was dripping wet and shivering. I expected he would be on fire with fever by morning. ìWill you not come up the bank with me to some drier ground?î I asked. He made no reply, so I tucked the blanket around him where he lay. We will both sleep cold tonight. And yet not, I think, as cold as Silas Stone.
I donít think the private knew his left from right, for his directions to the house were less than coherent, and his friend, whose neck was bandaged and who couldnít speak, kept waving his hands in objection at every turn the other man described. So I blundered on in the dark, finding myself at the riverbank again, uncertain whether the farther shore was Maryland or Virginia. I turned back and found a line of snake-rail fence that led past the ruins of what must have once been a gristmill. I continued following the fence line until it turned in at a gate. Beyond stretched a drive lined with dogwoods, and a gravel of river stone that was hard on my bootless feet.
And then I knew I was on the right path, for I smelled it. If only field hospitals did not always have the selfsame reek as latrine trenches. But so it is when metal lays open the bowels of living men and the wastes of digestion spill about. And there is, too, the lesser stink, of fresh-butchered meat, which to me is almost equally rank. I stopped, and turned aside into the bushes, and heaved up bitter fluid. Something about my state just then, bent double and weak, brought to my mind the recollection of my father, caning me, for refusing my share of salt pork. He believed a meatless diet such as mine made me listless at my chores. But what I shirked were the tasks themselves, foul and cruel. No soul should be asked to toil all day with the yellow oxen yoked up, unwilling, their hide worn raw by the harness, their big blank eyes empty of hope. It drains the spirit, to trudge sunup till sundown at the arse-end of beasts, sinking into piles of their steaming ordure. And the pigs! How could anyone eat pork who has heard the screams at slaughter when the black blood spurts?
Perhaps it was the darkness, or the different season. Perhaps my biliousness and grief and exhaustion. Perhaps simply that twenty years is a very long time for an active mind to retain any memory, much less one with dark and troubled edges, begging to be forgot. Whatever the case, I was halfway up the wide stone steps before I recognized the house. I had been there before.
Excerpted from "March"
Copyright © 2006 Geraldine Brooks.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"Brilliant...Geraldine Brooks' new novel, March, is a very great book....Brooks has magnificently wielded the novelist's license."—Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune
"A beautifully wrought story....Gripping....A taut plot, vivid characters and provocative issues."—Heller McAlpin, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Honorable, elegant and true."—John Freeman, The Wall Street Journal
"Harrowing and moving...In her previous book, Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks proved herself to be a wonderful novelist. March has all the same virtues...casting a spell that lasts much longer than the reading of it."—Karen Joy Fowler, The Washington Post World
"Wholly original...deeply engaging."—Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
"Inspired... A disturbing, supple, and deeply satisfying story, put together with craft and care and imagery worthy of a poet." —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Louisa May Alcott would be well pleased." —The Economist
Reading Group Guide
With her critically acclaimed and bestselling novel Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks was praised for her passionate rendering and careful research in vividly imagining the effects of the bubonic plague on a small English village in the seventeenth century. Now, Brooks turns her talents to exploring the devastation and moral complexities of the Civil War through her brilliantly imagined tale of Mr. March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. In Mr. March, Brooks has created a conflicted and deeply sensitive man, a father who is struggling to reconcile duty to his fellow man with duty to his family against the backdrop of one of the most grim periods in American history.
October 21, 1861. March, an army chaplain, has just survived a brush with death as his unit crossed the Potomac and experienced the small but terrible battle of Ball's Bluff. But when he sits down to write his daily missive to his beloved wife, Marmee, he does not talk of the death and destruction around him, but of clouds "emboss[ing] the sky," his longing for home, and how he misses his four beautiful daughters. "I never promised I would write the truth," he admits, if only to himself.
When he first enlisted, March was an idealistic man. He knew, above all else, that fighting this war for the Union cause was right and just. But he had not expected he would begin a journey through hell on earth, where the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, were too often blurred.
For now, however, he has no choice but to press on. He is directed to a makeshift hospital, an old estate he finds strangely familiar. It was here, more than twenty years earlier, that he first met Grace, a beautiful, literate slave. She was the woman who provided his first kiss and who changed the course of his life.
Now, he finds himself back at the Clement estate, and what was once the most beautiful place he had ever seen has been transformed by the ugliness of war. However, March's sojourn there is brief and he finds himself reassigned to set up a school on one of the liberated plantations, Oak Landing—a disastrous posting that leaves him all but dead.
Though rescued and delivered to a Washington hospital where his physical health improves, March is a broken man, haunted by all he has witnessed and "a conscience ablaze with guilt" over the many people he feels he has failed. And when it is time for him to leave he finds he does not want to return home. He turns to Grace, whom he has encountered once again, for guidance. "None of us is without sin," she tells him. "Go home, Mr. March." So, March returns to his wife and daughters, and though he is tormented by the past and worried for his country's future, the present, at least, is certain: he is home, he is a father again, and for now, that will be enough.
ABOUT GERALDINE BROOKS
Geraldine Brooks is the author of Year of Wonders and the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire andForeign Correspondence. Previously, Brooks was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, stationed in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East.
AN INTERVIEW WITH GERALDINE BROOKS
In your afterword, you make an amusing apology to your husband, a well-known writer and Civil War afficionado, for your previous lack of appreciation for his passion. Although you say you're not sure "when or where" it happened, would you talk a bit about your change of heart and what led to your new and profound interest in the American Civil War and eventually to the writing of March?
In the early 1990s we came to live in a small Virginia village where Civil War history is all around us. There are bullet scars on the bricks of the Baptist church where a skirmish took place; we have a Union soldier's belt buckle that was unearthed near the old well in our courtyard. The village was Quaker, and abolitionist, but in the midst of the Confederacy. The war brought huge issues of conscience for the townsfolk, a few of whom sacrificed their nonviolent principles to raise a regiment to fight on the Union side. It was thinking about the people who once lived in our house, and the moral challenges the war presented for them, that kindled my interest in imagining an idealist adrift in that war. I am gripped by the stories of individuals from the generation Oliver Wendell Holmes so eloquently described when he said: "In our youth our hearts were touched with fire." I'm still not all that interested in the order of battles, I still drive Tony crazy by failing to keep the chronology straight, and offered the choice between a trip to the dentist and another midsummer reenactment, it'd be a hard call. But sometimes, alone on a battlefield as the mists rise over the grass, I feel like a time traveler, born back by the ghosts of all those vivid, missing boys.
Grace Clement is such an extraordinary character and is pivotal in shaping March's life. You tell us that her voice was inspired by an 1861 autobiography, but what inspired you to create a romantic relationship between Grace and March? Were there any historical hints that Alcott had had such a relationship?
The idea of an attraction between March and Grace is entirely imagined and not at all suggested by Bronson Alcott's biography. It grew naturally out of the narrative: they are young and attractive when they first meet, he is an idealist, she is a compelling person in a dramatic and moving situation. It seemed inevitable to me.
A year after March enlists he says, "One day I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, 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." Do you think he can go back? Is it even possible? Would you discuss how you think March changes by the end of the novel and what parts of him remain intact?
I don't think he can go back. Nor do I think it is necessarily desirable. Moral certainty can deafen people to any truth other than their own. By the end of the book, March is damaged, but he is still an idealist; it's just that he sees more clearly the cost of his ideals, and understands that he is not the only one who must pay for them.
Your book Nine Parts of Desire deals with the issues of Muslim women. Year of Wonders had a female heroine, Anna Frith. How was it different writing principally from a man's point of view this time?
I have always believed that the human heart is the human heart, no matter what century we live in, what country we inhabit, or what gender we happen to be. This is a book about strong feelings: love and fear. I can't believe there's much difference in how a man or a woman experiences them. And then, I had the journals and letters of Bronson Alcott, which are perhaps as complete a record of a Victorian man's interior life as any you could find.
It is quite a surprise to suddenly hear Marmee's voice in Part Two. Can you talk about how and why you decided to change the point of view here?
The structure of March was laid down for me before the first line was written, because my character has to exist within Louisa May Alcott's Little Women plotline. That meant March has to go to the hospital gravely ill and Marmee has to arrive to tend him. The alternative to switching voices would have been to continue the narrative in March's voice, disoriented by his delirium. But giving Marmee a voice seemed like an opportunity to me to better explore some of the themes of communication, and miscommunication, in a marriage. Also, the book was written against the tumult of my own feelings about the war with Iraq, and as I started to write in Marmee's voice I found that she could naturally articulate a frustration, grief, and confusion that seemed in common between us.
The American Civil War was enormously complex with different political, social, economic, and psychological factors all playing a role. What did you learn from your research that may have surprised you and, other than your obvious newfound interest, is your opinion of the war any different now than when you started?
Nations inevitably fall into the trap of romanticizing their militaries and are always astonished when the truth of awful atrocities is revealed, as it inevitably is in almost every war. There were plenty of hate-filled racists in Lincoln's army, fighting side by side with the celebrated idealists. March's growing dismay as he learns this in a way reflects my own journey to a more complete understanding.
Would you talk a bit about how your past work as a foreign correspondent informs your current writing? What do you think historical fiction can achieve that nonfiction cannot? Would you ever entertain the idea of writing a novel about current events?
Write what you know. It's the first advice given to writers. I did draw on some experiences of war from my correspondent years. You see things during war, and you can never unsee them. The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure. And to do that you use all the experiences you can. While I love to read contemporary fiction, I'm not drawn to writing it. Perhaps it's because the former journalist in me is too inhibited by the press of reality; when I think about writing of my own time I always think about nonfiction narratives. Or perhaps it's just that I find the present too confounding.
What are you working on now?
Another historical novel based on a true story, but one where the truth is not completely known, and so there are intriguing voids for the imagination to fill. Like March and Year of Wonders it has a lot to do with faith and catastrophe.