Geraldine Brooks

I don’t know how I missed “March” until recently.  I dug it, it captured me, it took me away.  It was layered, rich and left me with a sensation of having a complete experience. Know the feeling, just from reading?

Then I went out and picked up “Year of Wonders” and I was ready for another slice of history, ready to be transported to another era.

You can hear the same writing voice at work, appreciate the common threads of catastrophe and faith and personal belief systems. But the main character of “March” has problems and flaws.  And the main character of “Years of Wonder” does not-unless it’s perfection to, ahem, a fault.

Good stuff first, “March.”

First, what a concept. “March” opens things up for fiction writers.

Here’s a new option for all fiction writers: Take a character from fiction who was based on somebody from real life (in this case, Bronson Alcott).  Step two: Explore a whole gap that’s missing from the main story that involves this character.  Step three: Extrapolate.  In between all those steps: do a heckuva lot of research to give your story weight and depth.

Using Bronson Alcott’s life journals and books written about him, Brooks merged his point of view and philosophy with the Civil War.  She adjusts his age, adjust his profession (from educator to minister) but whole swaths of this book are grounded in reality, from mentions of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to John Brown and Harper’s Ferry.  The result is stunning, layered and rewarding.

The key is March’s deceptions as he writes home about what he’s experiencing-the purposeful, up-front editing he does to protect those at home (his wife and four daughters).  March is an idealist but around him are those with every attitude about the human race and March, as a result, is a changed man.  At his core, Mr. March firmly believes in the power of knowledge and learning, yet encounters slaves with “hands innocent of pen or quill.”  He is used to judging people by “how lettered” they are.  (I was reading this book as Barack Obama was beginning his transition plans, shortly after the November election in 2008; it made for a fascinating backdrop to consider what was happening 140 years earlier.)

The first two-thirds of the book are stunning enough but then March’s wife Marmee arrives in Washington, D.C. to face the brutality first hand and the “dreadful alchemy” and “empty glory” of war and disease.  Her anger is palpable-and covers thousands of years of remorse.  “The waste of it. I sit here, and I look at him, and it is as if a hundred women sit beside me: the revolutionary farm wife, the English peasant woman, the Spartan mother-‘Come back with your shield or on it,’ she cried, because that was what she was expected to cry. And then she leaned across the broken body of her son and the words turned to dust in her throat.”

This book is a gem.  Skip to the Afterward and read it first.  You’ll admire the research and sheer work that went into developing the concept of “March” and, as a result, perhaps more appreciative of the arc of the story and the punch it packs.  The combination of solid research about the war and Brooks’ vivid imagination carry a powerful effect.  How many books of non-fiction and fiction can there be about the Civil War? “March” would suggest that there are few limits, particularly if the vein being mined is this rich.

No doubt a ton of research went into “Year of Wonders” too. I won’t belabor the point but to me Anna Frith is just too perfect.  She can do it all.  She tends the sick, she manages as a teenage widow and mother, she is dutiful, forthright, and everywhere.  The plague is all around her and she refers to her sadness but we never feel it. The voice is distant, disaffected. The incidents throughout the book feel set up to show us how much Brooks learned about the period-whether it’s about alternative medicine of the period, flagellation, or bits about commerce and farming.  There’s no tension.  Anna never so much as coughs or has a bad health day. She seems to rise above the action, to float above it even as others around her descend to depths of misery and despair.  The last wrinkle, the bizarre turn of events with Michael Mompellion, felt tacked-on.

If “Year of Wonders” was a warm-up for “March,” I’m satisfied.  It allowed Geraldine Brooks to get comfortable with the idea of writing against an historical backdrop.  That is a hefty challenge and I admire the effort that must have gone into the details of “Year of Wonders.”  But you’d probably get more out of re-reading “March” than reading this.

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