“And now, a year has passed since I undertook to go to war, and I wake every day, sweating, in the solitude of the seed store at Oak Landing, to a condition of uncertainty. More than months, more than miles, now stand between me and that passionate orator perched on his tree-stump puplit. One day, I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was that day; that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do.”
Wow. Has it really been so long that I haven’t posted anything new on The Pulitzer Blog? Please forgive me, fellow readers; I know my curious absence must have sent you to fits of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. However, grieve no more—I’m back with a plethora of interesting topics to blog about over the next couple weeks.
May has been such an exceptionally bizarre and stressful month. There will be more details on the reasons why to come in future blogs, but I have been dealing with the prospects of moving to another town, trying to find a job in that town, coming to the end of my allotted time with my current roommates, wondering where I’m going, facing homelessness, etc., etc. These concerns have been bogging me down, weighing heavily on my shoulders. We’re only a little more than halfway through May and, already, I’m feeling the strain of the pressures this month has brought me wearing me out; I’m constantly fatigued, sore, and increasingly agitated. I’m being spread very thin by the cares and concerns of my everyday existence.
At the end of everyday, now, I have to remind myself, “Only three weeks to go… Only two weeks to go… Only one week to go…”
Needless to say, because of all of this undue stress, I have neither found the time to read, nor cared to find the time to read. That is my explanation as to why it took me two full weeks to complete Geraldine Brooks’ March—a book that, at a scant 278 pages, would typically only take me a day or two to finish.
Furthermore, I regret to say, I probably won’t be reading anymore novels for the remainder of this month either, as all of my books are currently in boxes, sitting in Joshua’s garage, 30 minutes away from me. I miss them, but at least I’ll have The Stories of John Cheever to keep me company.
Here’s an idea that’s come about in the 20th and 21st centuries that I’ve never really taken to: authors writing prequels, sequels, and other literary appendages and attaching them to classic works by other authors. There’s something about this craze that seems to me, oh, I don’t know—disingenuous? Unoriginal? Oblique? Perhaps, even blasphemous? Of course, this way of writing has probably been around for centuries, but it really seems as though it has really taken off in the past hundred or so years.
For instance, in 1813 Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, the story of a young girl named Elizabeth, who learns to deal with issues such as manners, upbringing, moral rightness, and relationships in an aristocratic society. In the novel, she falls madly in love with Mr. Darcy and blah, blah, blah. Some one hundred and ninety or so years later, in 2003, Elizabeth Aston continues the story of Elizabeth and Darcy in the sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy’s Daughters.
Another example: in 1847, Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre, the story of a young girl who falls in love with a well-to-do man named Rochester. The only snafu in this love story is that Rochester is married! Woops! To make things even more complicated, Rochester’s wife, Bertha, is a crazed lunatic that he locks in his attic! And, of course, though her readers were dying to know more about the nutjob in the attic, Brontë never really explains anything. So, 1966, Jean Rhys decided to write a prequel to the book called Wide Sargasso Sea, in which Bertha and Rochester’s entire bizarre marriage is explained from its beginning to its end.
Geraldine Brooks’ March is yet another example of this type of writing, though it is neither sequel nor prequel. Her novel is an appendage to Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s classic Civil War novel from 1868. Little Women is the story of Margaret March and her four daughters, Jo, Amy, Meg, and Elizabeth; it is her daughters’ transformation from girls into “little women” during the one year of the Civil War in which their father, Robin, is absent. All Alcott says about his absence is that he was a chaplain in the Union army and he had been sent to minister to the troops. He is there in the beginning of the novel, and he is there at the end of the novel. So, in 2006, Geraldine Brooks decided to write March and thereby offer another part of Alcott’s story: the story of Robin March.
Let me first say this: Geraldine Brooks is an amazing writer. On the front cover of the edition I have, Karen Joy Fowler, of The Washington Post, praises Brooks’ writing by labeling it “harrowing and moving”—I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. Brooks has a very firm grasp on the English language and her writing style—whether she is depicting hospital rooms, battlefields, violence, racism, family dinners, or marital conflicts—is some of the most eloquent I have ever come across.
With that being said, however, I’m not really sure her writing style lends itself to her storytelling. Although she is unarguably a wonderful, gifted writer, I really had a hard time with her lack of story in this particular book.
So she sets out to explain the entire year that Robin March was absent from his home—okay, that’s great; what happened in that one year? Well, according to Brooks, not a whole lot. He went to war as a chaplain to minister to the Union troops, he saw some stuff,—some of it was nice, some of it wasn’t so nice—he wrote letters home, he got sick, he attempted to help slaves, he got hurt in a skirmish, he was laid up in a hospital, then he went home. Now, these details that I’ve explained here seem like a very basic overview of a long narrative; however, they aren’t. That’s what happens, but with more flowery, eloquent language.
This book is in no way a narrative of a story; rather, it reads more like a fictional memoir. Brooks, rather than telling the story of his absence from beginning to end, the way one might expect her to, she instead relates random memories from his year at war—and from his years of adolescence—and trusts the reader to deduce the full story from these tidbits. Worst of all, these memories aren’t really that interconnected, so much as they are interrelated (and even that’s a stretch; by “interrelated,” I mean that he sees a slave and is reminded of another time he saw a slave).
Furthermore, March seems to be less a story about Robin March and more about slavery. March is a chaplain and, throughout the novel, that fact is beaten into the reader’s head—they mention it every couple or so pages. However, despite its overwhelming importance to the book, Brooks never expounds on it. Once or twice, Brooks briefly mentions that March prayed with Union soldiers, and we are given a glimpse of him preaching a sermon, but that is it, really. With as much as she mentions his position in the army, I assumed that she would have spent more time discussing his prayers, his sermons, his duties as a chaplain. In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel about a pastor, the reader gets to hear entire prayers, entire sermons, to read sermon notes—not so with this Union chaplain. The most intimately acquainted we are allowed to become with March is when Brooks shares with the reader his thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Curiously, however, despite his role as a chaplain in the Union army, Brooks glosses over the time that he spends with soldiers—again, I would assume that since he is a chaplain in the Union army and the entire novel was written to detail the events of the year that he spent in that role, Brooks would spend a good amount of time discussing the war. Not so. Rather, she focuses most of her attention on his relationships with the slaves he comes in contact with on two different plantations. Furthermore, while he is there, she spends more time describing their lives than his! Every now and then, I’d have to turn the book over in my hands and remind myself of the title on the front cover: “Yep—it says March still; not The Evils of Slavery and March’s Recollections Thereof.”
And, because of her focus on slavery rather than March,—the book’s titled-character—it was very easy for me to become disconnected from the book. Sure, Brooks made me feel bad about slavery, and she made me feel uneasy while discussing what went on on the plantations, but because her focus was to explain how the one year of war changed Robin March, I didn’t really connect with the slaves she discussed; not as much as she probably wanted me to, anyway. Instead (and I almost feel bad admitting this), but I really wanted to just get past the parts that dealt with the atrocities that befell the slaves because I was more interested in Robin March’s story—not theirs.
What is most interesting about Brooks’ focus and ardent desire to shed a light on the many evils of American slavery, is that 1) she’s white, and 2) she’s Australian! This woman immigrated to the United States in the 90’s, became an official citizen in 2002, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for a novel that chronicles American slavery. Furthermore (this is where her story gets even more bizarre), she has also developed (invented, is more like it) tangible, deep connections to another oppressed people group: the Jews!
See, in 1984, Geraldine Brooks converted to Judaism. In 2008, she decided that her 24 years of being Jewish (or a facsimile, thereof) had given her enough experience to draw on 5,000 years of oppression against her adopted people group and wrote a novel about the struggles of the Jewish people called People of the Book.
This reminds me of the Anti-Dentite episode of Seinfeld, where Jerry suspects his dentist, Dr. Watley, of converting to Judaism simply for the Jewish jokes. Is it possible that Brooks converted to Judaism simply so she could identify with oppressed people groups, then write books that convey their struggles?
Hmmm… I guess we’ll find out the answer to that question if her next novel is about the Irish during the Potato Famine, or the Japanese-Americans during World War II, or about the Russians during Stalin’s reign.
And, so, here is my conclusion about March, by Geraldine Brooks: while this is a wonderfully, beautifully written book, I really don’t feel as though Brooks really achieved her goals—she didn’t do a very good job of explaining Robin March’s one year of transformation while at war and she didn’t do a very good job of chronicling the struggles of being an African-American during the years of American slavery. In both arguments, I believe it really comes down to this: Brooks is completely and totally disingenuous.
She’s an Australian writing about the American Civil War; she’s a wealthy white woman attempting to identify with the plights of impoverished black slaves; she’s a Gentile calling herself a Jew and attempting to identify with 5,000 years of oppression; she’s a woman attempting to tell the story of a man; and, worst of all, she’s not Louisa May Alcott and she did not write Little Women, however she still attempts to write a companion piece to Alcott’s Little Women.
March is a good book; not a great book, but a good book.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.