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March - Geraldine Brooks The problem with March is that it's tied in to a beloved children's story. While this might have been a terrific marketing ploy, (fan fiction often is, since it offers immediate context and recognition,) it created two very different stories. The first: a reworking of one absent and one present (and much loved) character in a famous work of fiction. The second: a story of a pacifist who went to war in one of the bloodiest and most tragic conflicts in our nation's history. The first seems a recipe to designed to anger loyal fans of the original. The second is the more compelling story, and probably more accessible to those who are unfamiliar with L.M. Alcott's novels.It's probably a good thing I'll never get around to reading Little Women again, because March seems like it was written to slaughter a few babies, and a reread would possibly be spoiled by my constant justifications of my irritations with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel*. In the afterword, the author admits that, though she having loved LW as a child, her mother once told her: “Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee.” It seems Brooks took that statement to heart, and set about to write a story that painted Marmee as a petty, jealous, shrewish, risk-taking idealogue – a woman without restraint of either temperament or libido. Mr. March expects his wife to be the picture of decorum in every situation, and mentions her piques of temper with disparaging attitude, in contrast with the loving, gentle picture painted of him as devoted father and husband, in Little Women.Regarding Marmee as a young woman: “Standing one on either side, they half patted, half held her, as one would both soothe and restrain a lunging, growling dog.”“The intemperance of her attack left me breathless. Angry women generally cannot be said to show to advantage, and to see that lovely face so distorted by such a scowl as it now wore was immensely shocking to me. Who could have imagined this gently bred young woman to be so entirely bereft of the powers of self-government? I had never seen such an outburst, not even from a market wife.” “At such times I thought I would rather live in the midst of a crashing thunderhead than with this Fury of a wife.”“'It is you,' I said, trying to keep my voice even, though my pulse beat in my head. 'It is you who degrade yourself, when you forgo self-mastery.'”In fact he seems quite disdainful of her throughout much of the story, and yet he is incapable of keeping little mr. march in his pants. (Brooks also seems to think she is quite clever with her allusions to masturbation.) Later, when the point of view switches to Marmee's, we see more character assassination, and a few scenes that don't even correlate with how Brooks has changed her. Are we to believe that this tireless, passionate and outspoken abolitionist woman, a stop on the Underground Railroad, is going to instantly devolve into racist slurs, when she (uncharacteristically for LW) jumps to the conclusion that her husband is an adulterer? I don't buy either scenario. If the character of Marmee is as Alcott portrays, I don't believe for a moment, that she would assume her husband is an adulterer on such a triviality. And if the character is as Brooks portrays (aside from her temper and her sexual freedom,) I don't find it believable that Marmee would express her thoughts in a racist fashion. This character assassination doesn't seem to contribute anything useful to the story in any case, and instead comes across as a personal agenda to take Marmee down a peg or ten. The comment in the afterword supports this observation. Because of the above objections, this part of the story fails on every level for me. The character of Mr. March is built, naturally, on the story of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father. Since Little Women was loosely autobiographical, it seems appropriate to do such with March. There was a great deal of experimental thinking and ideology during these years, in New England, and literature bears out the ideals of the time, with thinkers such as Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Alcott, William Elery Channing, and others, developing the ideas and philosophies of transcendentalism, and setting the stage for the emergence of uniquely American faiths such as the Unity Church and Religious Science. The same region and intellectual climate also produced the burgeoning religiosity in the nearby area that came to be known as the “burned-over district,” and the emergence of its insular and restrictive religious ideals. (This book does not address this last theme, but it's historically relevant.) Alcott and his contemporaries were ideologically progressive, pioneering new ideas regarding education, communal living, and veganism, as well as exploring other cultural ideals. Alcott himself seemed to be somewhat incapable of providing well for his family, so Brooks uses L.M. Alcott's backstory that Mr. March once made a fortune, then lost it. Unlike Alcott, Mr. March – a strict pacifist, in both stories, goes to war as a chaplain. This is where the story improves, the irony being that it would be possible to utterly separate the narrative from the LW storyline.Mr. March is an idealist, quite naïve and more than a little self-righteous. He joins the war effort without really understanding the political or moral climate – which is perhaps more realistic in its portrayal than not. As I read these parts of the book, I thought that here was potentially the real meat of the story – the picture of close range war, the destruction of lives, families, home, property. Personal tragedy, horror and degradation. It certainly is rich with commentary on slavery and its obvious and less obvious evils (although Brooks makes quite a lot of use of slavery/civil war cliches to make her point: the beautiful mixed-blood house slave/interracial romance, the powerful old genteel southern woman, Reb rapists, sawing off limbs in a field hospital, the stench of blood and bowel, etc,) but I find that as I sit down to write this review, I realize the novel falls victim to political correctness; for every evil Southern Rebel, you must show an equally despicable Northern Unionist. For every ignorant/uneducated slave, you must write an intelligent/educated one. In one sentence she writes with flagrant disregard for cultural behavior in the interaction between Black and White, and in the next, she stops to point out how few Northerners were actually motivated by abolitionist ideals. It detracts from the argument against slavery, but unfortunately falls short of contributing any meaningful discourse of the disunion present on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.Maybe it's unfair to make something of that, because modern fiction set in 19th century America frequently raises this exact dichotomy. America really was two very different countries, and in many ways it still is. Maybe it's picking nits to point out the way Brooks handles this conceit, after all her prose is beautiful, drawing one along in the story, in spite of itself. Except that it feels like she had a checklist of “fair” that she drew up before she could write this novel. Brilliantly done, however, are the final two chapters, when we are returned to Mr. March's point of view. Brooks hands over an eloquent portrayal of Soldier's Heart and survivor guilt. It's a bit of a shame that these chapters were not expanded just a little. I would not have read this book, had it not been for it being included on an assigned summer reading list for matriculating Stanford University students (my nephew is leaving for Stanford in the fall! *little brag*) and its inclusion grabbed my eye as being odd. After a little discussion with him, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to read it. After reading, I admit I'm still a little baffled as to its selection. *I dug around quite a bit on the 'net, trying to find the criteria for a Pulitzer Prize. There really doesn't seem to be much; the book needs to be by an American, or about an American, or about America, or... “other.” I guess if the little panel at Columbia likes it, for any reason, it qualifies. Maybe I should make a prize called the Stacey Prize. You can qualify thus: Any book, written by a human, about a human, or about something that resembles a human, or any book that a human can read.