In her latest novel, Geraldine Brooks borrows a page from the Louisa May Alcott classic, Little Women, exploring the fate of Mr. March, the father gone to the Civil war as his family waits patiently for his return. An educated man, March travels the country as a tinker in his youth but eventually marries, content to raise four daughters in a pastoral landscape in Concord,
Massachusetts, their esteemed neighbors and fellow philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
In serious financial straights since an injudicious investment, March's family has adapted to reduced fortune, valuing the fruits of the mind over material possessions, convinced that "the greater part of a man's duty consists in abstaining from much that he is in the habit of consuming." For her part, Mrs. Marsh (Marmee) is an abolitionist of great commitment, while many Northerners are still mired in discussions about the morality of slavery.
Brooks exposes the sometimes naive tenets of the abolitionists, revealing the barbarism that exists in any war - with profit to be made, exploitation of the unfortunate and greed are in abundance. Unconstrained by geography, prejudice thrives, righteousness a flagrant cloak frequently hiding true motives.
Although older than most Union soldiers, Marsh joins the war effort as a chaplain. Broad-minded to a fault, March is profoundly disturbed by the violence around him, extending comfort to the injured and dying, impressed by the youthful soldiers, most of whom are in the war by conscription. While March believes the war is motivated by a noble effort to free the slaves, he is not oblivious to the stark realities of the situation.
March (and his beloved Marmee, for that matter) might express a bit more passion, more humanity in order to be a memorable character. The man displays an abundance of moral turpitude, so conscience-riddled as to be a bit of a bore, rich in character if not in goods, agonizing over every flawed decision, every mistake; unfortunately, he endures an equal amount of subconscious self-flagellation. Even after a nearly mortal illness, March perseveres, pulling himself together lest the March family be sullied by his faults.
While March carries the burden of the plot, it is the readerís burden as well. Most of the novel is first-person narrative, but the last chapters are in different viewpoints - Mrs. March and the ex-slave, Grace Clement. Here the novel finally comes to life. If only the entire book offered this changing perspective. The pitch-perfect dialog is in tune with the era, prone to prodigious verbiage. However, the excessive prose is the major flaw in this novel, much ado about nothing, too often tedious. Less prattle and more passion would serve Mr. March well in Brooks' incarnation.