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Thursday, September 13, 2018

How brave do you need to be to satisfy yourself?

March by Geraldine Brooks

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
March is an extrapolation of the life of Mr. March, as in the Marches of Little Women. We follow Mr. March through the past and the present, and experience not only what he discloses to Marmee and his girls, but also the things he keeps close to the breast. He serves as a chaplain in the Civil War for the Union side, he peddles his way through the southern states as a young man, and he triumphs and tumbles as he precariously navigates his space as a white man, an educator, a father, and a man of god. He does us and the March family proud more often than once, and like any human being, he makes his fair share of missteps. Injury and tragedy conspire to send him to Washington, D.C. to a military "hospital", where he is joined by Marmee. His conscience ebbs and flows, shifts and grows, and in the end, though he returns with a heavy heart, he is reunited with the Little Women
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book was pretty spectacular. I wasn't really sure what to expect, since I had forgotten adding it to my list, and I've never read anything else by Geraldine Brooks. If you're an Alcott fan, I highly suggest that you read this. Don't expect the same tone as Little Women, per se, but Brooks does a stunning job of weaving her story into the ends and outskirts of Little Women. I think both books end up the better for it on the other side. On a very basic note, Little Women is a story about white women in New England, and in many ways, it seems to exist out of time in a way. They have their ups and downs, but there's a kind of beautiful comfort that seeps through the pages. This book is grittier, and packed with nuance. Emotion and connection and history are present in a more substantial capacity. This book seems to round out not just the fictional side of the March family, but the historical moment in which they lived. 

Here are the rest of my thoughts about it, in no real order.
Why have I never heard of this book before?
It won the Pulitzer Prize. Had you heard of this book before? I feel like the subtitle for my second list of 100 books should be "Books You SHOULD Have Heard Of Before, But Probably Didn't". This certainly makes my top ten favorites now, and I didn't even remember adding it to my reading list. 

On writing as a man
I'm always intrigued when an author chooses a protagonist who is of the opposite sex, and ultimately, I am not always pleased by the choice. I'm especially curious (perhaps suspicious?) when women write as a man - I suppose I always wonder if there's a patriarchal reason driving it. Why can't she be the protagonist? Is she not worthy of heroism herself? 

In this case, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Ms. Brooks did such a wonderful job of writing as a man that I was actually disappointed when she briefly switched over to Marmee's point of view. I thought, oh no! Where has Mr. March gone!? In my humble opinion, this is a sign of a job well done in writing across difference.

Why I have always wanted to be a March
Perhaps you, too, read Little Women and wanted to be a member of that family, dear reader. This book built on those feelings and made proud to want to be a March. Allow me to explain. 

The girls are close, which always resonated with me, having two sisters I am close with myself. But beyond that, they are kind. They are compassionate to their community and fierce protectors of their own family, and these things drew me to them originally. 

These lines imbued my long-burning desires to be a March with a kind of fierce pride:
  • Some call them less than human; I call her more than saintly - a model, indeed, for our own little women. Mr. March, on Grace, a slave he encounters first in his peddling days, and then again in the war. 
  • But would it have been better so? I am not convinced of it. For instead of idleness, vanity, or an intellect formed by the spoon-feeding of others, my girls have acquired energy, industry, and independence. In times as hard as these are now become, I cannot think this an unfortunate barter. That's right, Mr. March! Energy, industry, and independence!
  • We don't give up our girls for a dozen fortunes, Aunt. Rich or poor, we will keep this family together and find a happiness in true affection that some will never know, because all the wealth in the world cannot buy it. True affection can't be bought! 
  • On the March family's role in the Underground Railroad (based, as Brooks states, on the Alcott family themselves): We had all learned long ago not to interrogate our railroad travelers, for reasons pragmatic as well as kind. The people who came to us were often in a sort of trance, brought on by fear, exhaustion, and, I imagined, a kind of mourning for what they had left behind - family, perhaps; friends, likely, and the certainty of all that had ever been familiar. A home in bondage is a home, still, and it is no light matter to leave such a place, knowing that one's act is irrevocable. I can't share them all here, but the flashbacks to the March family and their role in helping slaves are very powerful.
On going south to Oak Landing
Mr. March begins the war embedded with troops, but as the conflict continues, he is sent south to a plantation that has been turned into a kind of 'experiment'. The previous owners lease the farm and slaves to the government, and the slaves become paid laborers on the land. It turns out to be dramatically different than what Mr. March's northern sensibilities had prepared him for, but I thought Brooks did a brilliant job of conveying the many nuances that complicated the circumstances for many different parties involved. Here is Mr. March's description of the weather, which felt very à propos given the unbearable heat we had the last few weeks here in Philadelphia:

Spring here is not spring as we know it: the cool, wet promise of snowmelt and frozen ground yielding into mud. Here, a sudden heat falls out of the sky one day, and one breathes and moves as if deposited inside a kettle of soup. In response, vegetation shoots out of the ground with irresistible force. Just when the body wishes to slow down and give way to lassitude, it must instead accelerate, for the challenge is to keep human labor on a pace with the work of Nature, or else be overrun by the excesses of her abundance. Yes. A kettle of soup. That's JUST how I've been feeling. 

On exemplars, not saints
What I loved most about this book was the fact that the Marches, and in particular Mr. and Mrs. March, were portrayed not just as aggressive abolitionists, but flawed and complex thinkers. I think it is easy to look back at the horror of our country's history and as a white person say, "Oh, I would definitely have been an abolitionist, and I would have been different." This book not only explores what activism and abolitionism would have looked like, and the lengths one would have had to go to stay true to that within the confines of that rigid time, but also what the journey to understanding means to different people at different times. The Marches are not perfect, but I do think they act as paragons - examples of what resisting, and loving thy neighbor, and treating all human beings with decency and kindness could and should look like, whether it's 1862 or 2018. 

Mr. March's conflict
Mr. March struggles as he heals at the hospital, because he has been forced to abandon many of his closest acquaintances, and he cannot save them from violent death or return to slavery. He questions his ability to return to his own family, knowing that slaves and black people across his country are suffering so. This was really beautifully articulated, and I loved the exchanges he had with Grace, who serves as his nurse for part of this time. Here are a few snippets:

Grace, to Mr. March - "Do not presume that I have no experience with a conscience that flays me alive, every waking day."

Grace again - "I do not ask your absolution. I simply ask you to see that there is only one thing to do when we fall, and that is to get up, and go on with the life that is set in front of us, and try to do the good of which our hands are capable for the people who come in our way. That, at least, has been my path."

Grace, on Mr. March's suggestion that he re-join the army and support doctors - "We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you will ever be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people must learn to manage its own destiny."

Grace's parting words - "If you sincerely want to help us, go back to Concord and work with your own people. Write sermons that will prepare your neighbors to accept a world where black and white may one day stand as equals."

Words, Wonderful Words
inchoate - just begun and so not fully formed and developed (like the novel I'm working on!)

flotilla - a fleet of ships or boats (I knew this had something to do with water, but couldn't quite put my finger on it.)

Lines I Liked
  • It was a family alive with good feeling, their zeal for reform matched by a zest for life.
  • I had learned the meteorology of Marmee's temper: the plunging air pressure as a black cloud gathered, blotting out the radiance of her true nature; the noisy thunder of her rage; and finally the relief of a wild and heavy rain - tears, in copious cataracts, followed by a slew of resolutions to reform.
  • In the months that had followed our marriage I quietly conspired to build beauty into our daily life.
In the end, what I liked most about this book was that it somehow felt like it was Ms. Brooks's story to tell. Which, by all accounts, it shouldn't have been. She is not an Alcott, she's not a descendant, and, in fact, she's Australian by birth. So this complex and nuanced history is not even necessarily hers to claim. And yet, she eloquently, effortlessly, and unequivocally crafted a story which seems to speak directly into and out of Little Women. As if Louisa May Alcott had written a letter to Ms. Brooks saying, "Won't you please extend my work a bit, and add Mr. March's portrait to the story?" So I say, as an ardent Alcott fan, well done, Ms. Brooks. Well done, indeed. 

I'll leave you with this line from Mr. March, in telling the story of his past: 

I went on peddling, though I ceased averting my eyes

Who knows if you are peddlers, dear readers, but I  will ask you this. Do not avert your eyes. See the world for what it is, and be industrious, be thoughtful, be kind, and act to protect the humans in the wake of whatever latest circumstances have cast them out to sea. 

I'm off to write and read - it's Doctor Zhivago next, if anyone cares to join. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.