Last fall, I wrote about my lifelong fondness for Louisa May Alcott’s timeless Little Women. I may have also mentioned, once or twice, my deep and profound love for reimagined stories. If you know me well, you also know that I love song covers – same basic concept. You take someone else’s story (or song) and spin it in a slightly different way. When you’re successful, you gain the ring of truth in your own story, set as it is in a world already established, and add depth to the original.
Knowing all this as you do, how is it possible that NO ONE has thought to recommend Geraldine Brooks’s exquisite book March to me? Come on, Bloglandia! Where were you? You made me wait until my father just happened to pick it off the book table at church a few weeks before my birthday? In 2008?? When it won the Pulitzer Prize TWO YEARS AGO??
Even MORE troubling than this gross oversight on the part of everyone I know are the blank looks on the faces of the people I’ve recommended this book to in the last few days:
Me: OMG, I just read this fantastic book.
Book-Loving Friend: Oh, I love to read! What is it?
Me: Geraldine Brooks’s book March. It tells the story of what happens to Mr. March when he goes off to the Civil War. It’s so good!
Friend Who Actually Might Not Be That Much of A Bibliophile After All: Who?
Me: Mr. March. You know! Marmee’s husband? Meg and Jo and Beth and Amy’s father?
Friend I Previously Considered to be Literate: (blank look) Uh… who?
Me: You know, like Little Women?
Friend Who Clearly Hates Books and Maybe Isn’t Actually My Friend After All Because How Can I Be Friends With Someone Who Doesn’t Know Who Marmee Is, I Mean Really: Oh yeah, I never read that book. Should I?
People!! I expected this kind of nonsense from my students, but from my friends? From adults? From the WRITERS in my workshop? You can’t not read Little Women!
I’m serious. Go read Little Women, and don’t come back until you can tell me what Teddy Laurence has in common with Sir James Chettam. I’ll wait here.
Okay, from here on out I’ll assume you’ve now all read Little Women. Isn’t it great? Don’t you love the part where everything’s just awful and Beth has scarlet fever and Marmee’s away in Washington and the girls are all by themselves, trying to keep poor little Beth alive, but then Marmee comes home and Beth can breathe and THEN Mr. March comes home on Christmas and everyone flies to him and smothers him in hugs and Amy falls at his feet and hugs his ankles and the girls make him go around and tell them how they’ve all changed in the year since he left them?
Ever wonder how Mr. March changed?
Geraldine Brooks did. In her splendid March, she tells the story of what happens to Mr. March during his year in the Civil War, doubling back in the narrative to cover his youth as a traveling salesman, his courtship and marriage to Marmee, how he won and lost his fortune, and why he decided to leave his four little women and his wife for the grueling hardships of war. Just as Louisa May Alcott drew on her own family to craft her novel, Geraldine Brooks turned to the journals of LMA’s father, A. Bronson Alcott, to fill in some of the narrative gaps, lending historical and familial truth to the figure of Captain March. Additionally, Brooks peoples her narrative with familiar figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Day, and Henry Thoreau, with whom the Alcotts themselves were acquainted.
As the best retellings do, March adds layers of pathos and depth to the pages of Little Women, its shift in perspective bound to change the way you read the homey scenes in the March home forever. After what he witnesses on the battlefield, the carnage and the cruelty, how can Mr. March possibly come home unchanged? And yet, the story of his family is clearly the story of the women, who focus on their growth and development without allowing much room for their father to do any of his own.
I don’t even like historical fiction, and the Civil War is by far my least favorite period of time to read about – and yet – I love this book. I read so much and so quickly that it’s rare for a book to strike at my heart. Even more rare are the times I find myself looking up from a page in quiet thankfulness, almost disbelief, that this book is SO GOOD and doesn’t lag or lose my interest at any point. March defied my every expectation.
It was folly to let him go. Unfair of him to ask it of me. And yet one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in the long list of things that a woman must not say. A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what the war has broken apart.