Sunday, 4 March 2012

March by Geraldine Brooks

I'm usually a little wary of books which are based on someone else's more famous novel. I tend to think that an author who can't manage an original idea of their own is unlikely to write much worth reading, so I bought March with some reluctance purely because it happened to fit in with a reading challenge I was doing. I'll happily eat my words after reading this, though, because March was well thought-out, beautifully written and a really good read.

For its framework March uses the story of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, but instead of telling us more about the March sisters it focuses on their father, who is absent during most of Alcott's book. In March we follow him as he leaves his family to take up a position as army chaplin for the Union troops, and from there to a cotton farm where he teaches ex-slaves working for a proper wage for the first time.

The timeline of March does flit about a bit, and there are chapters set when Mr March was a young travelling salesman, as well as scenes from his and Marmee's courtship and the early days of their marriage. Marmee's character is very different from the meek woman of Louisa May Alcott's novel, and she even takes up the narration of March for a while, giving the reader a fascinating insight into both sides of the March marriage.

However, slavery is the major theme of this novel, and both March and Marmee are commited abolitionists. March sees some horrific sights in the South and does his best to help the slaves where he can, though sometimes he is not quite brave enough or even physically capable of preventing catastrophe. His guilt at his own inaction is just one of the things that makes him so believable and human.

I did find myself wondering why the author decided to use Little Women at all, and why she didn't just write a straight story that stands on its own - it's certainly strong enough to do so. But I did eventually see the wisdom in it; there's an extra sting in the tale when it's juxtaposed with such a cosy, familiar story that most of us read as children. Lust, brutality and death are all there under the surface of even the happiest family, and reading something like this really helps bring it home to you. The love and strong family ties of Little Women are all still there though, so don't worry that reading March will ruin your memories of your favourite novel. In the author's note, she says that she based the character of Mr March on Louisa May Alcott's father, also a teacher and abolitionist. As Alcott used her own sisters as inspiration for the March sisters, it's interesting to see this idea being expanded.

March was a really wonderful surprise; a literary, complex and engaging novel that manages to be original, even though it's based on another book. Four stars.

2 comments:

  1. Sounds like the Little Women connection isn't needed but that it's a good book. I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

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