MARCH By Geraldine Brooks. 280 pp. Viking. $24.95.
GERALDINE BROOKS’S second novel is in every important way less accomplished than her first, “Year of Wonders” (2001). That book, which dealt with the assaults of plague on a 17th-century English village, derived some of its power from the way its resourceful heroine came to suspect the biological essence of the calamity she was up against: “Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe.” Fearlessness — and experimentation with herbs — saw her through and won a reader’s respect. In “March,” the ferocious nemeses conjured by Brooks are war and slavery, which, unlike impersonal disease, end up prompting the author and her characters toward a prolonged moral exhibitionism.
Brooks appropriates the absent father of “Little Women” for her principal character. Like Louisa May Alcott’s Mr. March, Brooks’s version has gone south with Union troops as a chaplain. But he has another, real-life source in Alcott’s father, Bronson, whose slew of Transcendentalist pieties go into the new character’s pack. Brooks’s novel winds up being both counterfactual and counterfictional: Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) depleted his family’s coffers with the 1840’s communal experiment he conducted at Fruitlands, west of his home in Concord, Mass.; Mr. March of “Little Women” suffered reverses, Alcott tells us, “in trying to help an unfortunate friend”; Brooks’s March loses his shirt by unwittingly subsidizing John Brown’s insurrection at Harpers Ferry.
The whole mix-and-match affair proves more ingenious than interesting. Brooks has March send falsely cheerful letters home to his wife, Marmee, and their “little women,” shielding them not only from the worst of the wartime horrors he witnesses but from some of the more stinging rebukes his millenarian righteousness keeps earning him. “Chaplain, you sure is an innocent man!” exclaims one of the soldiers. March, who lives on vegetables and guilt, must continually learn that Northern troops can be as racist as Southern landowners.
As a young man, March left his native Connecticut to become a peddler. Traveling through Virginia 20 years before the Civil War, he was entertained at a plantation, where he was appalled to discover that slaves, in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion, were forbidden to learn to read and write. During the visit he also grew disgusted by his own lust for Grace, a beautiful, “astonishingly eloquent” slave who had become literate before the ban. When the two were caught teaching a younger slave to read, March was expelled from the plantation, but only after being made to witness the savage whipping of Grace.
Two decades later, after the rout of Union soldiers at Ball’s Bluff, March finds himself back on the same property. It may be in sorry shape, but Grace has remained as handsome and regal and profound as ever — “a model, indeed, for our own little women,” March writes to Marmee. Later in the action, after he has been sickened with fever and grazed by a rebel bullet, Grace again shows up, tending him in a Washington hospital and talking like a double major in civics and psychology: “He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward.