March, by Geraldine Brooks

Anyone who has read Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women will likely remember the vague, background figure of the father of the four little women.  For most of that book, he was far from home fighting the Civil War. In this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Geraldine Books brings him to life, calling him only “March,” the family’s last name.

She paints March as a strong believer in the Union cause, but he is too idealistic and totally unprepared for the horrors of the war he is about to become involved in. The story follows March as he leaves behind his family and heads off to join the Union troops as a Chaplin.

But before leaving, and without consulting his wife, Marmee, he gives nearly all of the family’s fortune away to support the losing cause of John Brown, leaving his family to live on the very edge of poverty, barely surviving and only with the reluctant help of the family’s Aunt March.

Behind the lines of the battlefield, March comes face to face with violence, suffering, and the unexpected cruelty and racism of both Northerners and Southerners.  His faith in himself and in his religious and political convictions are mightily tested. But his letters to his family are intentionally evasive and cheerful, never revealing the challenges and discouragement he faces daily.  March becomes attached to a field hospital where he is faced with violence and horrible suffering which he is powerless to prevent.

He re-unites with Grace, a beautiful, well-educated Black nurse who he met years ago while working as a peddler, selling his wares to various Connecticut plantations.  When his sexual indiscretion with Grace becomes known, March is sent to a plantation where recently freed slaves are able to earn money.  But while he struggles with his duties as a Chaplin, he becomes seriously ill from the horrors he has experienced, his guilt and total disillusionment. Marmee is sent for and eventually is able to bring him home from the Washington hospital, a sick, broken man, and an invalid.  His belief in himself is shattered.  He is a changed man.

Then we learn the behind-the-scenes story of Marmee, the strong, outspoken and loving mother who kept her family together during their wartime struggles. She is both enraged and deeply hurt when she learns of March’s indiscretion. His actions have driven a wedge between Marmee and March. Marmee is again left to struggle with keeping her family together and nursing her invalid husband.

— by Gail Stilwill.

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