I have to confess at the outset that I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, though I can identify a grouping of the names Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth as the title characters of that much-loved classic. What journalist/novelist Geraldine Brooks has accomplished with this loving work of fiction is to successfully imagine the wartime experiences of the absent father of the March girls, as he struggles to survive the horrors of the American Civil War while his family endures on the home front. In the process, her protagonist provides a looking-glass, in the form of an extended journal, not only into the war itself but into the history of America in the decades immediately preceding that conflict.
Peter March is a compassionate yet naïve man. A New Englander, his travels in the American South as a young man and his first-hand witnessing of the hideous inhumanity of the institution of slavery have molded him into a committed abolitionist by the age of forty. At this relatively advanced age, he enlists as a chaplain in the Union Army and goes off to war, a war that he sees as a necessary crusade against a terrible evil. In between disturbing accounts of the aftermath of battle, we learn that he was a close acquaintance of Thoreau and Emerson and that his wife, Alcott’s Marmee, was in every way his equal in her dedication to the cause of abolition, to the degree that their family become players in that famed conduit to freedom, the Underground Railroad.
In the war, March receives one lesson after another that forces his eyes to see the inescapable fact that cruelty is not confined to one culture alone, and that the South was sadly not singular in its practice of viewing the African as an inferior member of the human race. March suffers grievous wounds of body, mind and spirit, and his eventual return home from war cannot be termed victorious. There is no glory in war and no satisfaction that evil has been vanquished. There isn’t even the consolation that he has allowed his better nature to prevail.
Geraldine Brooks is inspired in her retelling of one man’s travels through one of the darkest nights of our shared history. This is by no means a light, pleasant tale but then again, neither is the story of our country.