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.
Grace is only the most prominent among a whole set of slave saints and savants in Brooks’s novel. There is also Jesse, “a powerfully built young man” whose “facility with mathematics was remarkable”; the noble, aged Ptolemy, who literally dies for March; and the mute Zannah (her tongue cut out by rapists long ago), who, after a rebel raid, puts a sign on the wounded, fevered March to effect his rescue:
he cum from plase cal concrd
he a gud kin man.
The overall effect, quite unmitigated by a few African-American tokens of treachery, is treacly and embarrassing.
Brooks creates her most challenging character in Ethan Canning, a contraband plantation’s new young Northern lessee, who, along with the recently freed slaves, struggles to extract a cotton crop from the soil. Fear of ruin and of the still nearby rebels repeatedly allows cruelty to distort his basic decency. His internal war repays attention much more than any tumult within March, who is at least able to perceive the other man’s conflict.
Brooks turns Mrs. March into a firebrand who excoriates Emerson for his timidity over slavery and whose full-throated admiration for John Brown leaves her husband jealous: “I could see that Brown ignited the very part of my wife’s spirit I wished to quench; the lawless, gypsy elements of her nature.” (March himself once had enough “gypsy elements” to consummate his relationship with Marmee in the woods near Concord — with unwitting musical accompaniment from Thoreau: “We married each other that night, there on a bed of fallen pine needles — even today, the scent of pitch pine stirs me — with Henry’s distant flute for a wedding march and the arching white birch boughs for our basilica.”)
As Brooks explains in an afterword, she decided “to put Mr. March at the battle of Ball’s Bluff simply because the terrain of that small but terrible engagement lies just a few miles from my Virginia home.” For the sake of narrative convenience, she moves the opening of “Little Women” a year ahead, from 1860 to 1861 — no small matter as years go. She similarly dispenses with the difficulty that plantations on the Mississippi “would not have been leased to Northerners quite so early in the war,” owning up to this last liberty for the sake of “those who care about such things.” They will, I suppose, know who they are.
Brooks is capable of strong writing about the natural world and nicely researched effects about the human one (on the eve of a battle, March sees “the surgeon flinging down sawdust to receive the blood that was yet to flow”), but the book she has produced makes a distressing contribution to recent trends in historical fiction, which, after a decade or so of increased literary and intellectual weight, seems to be returning to its old sentimental contrivances and costumes. More and more, in book clubs throughout the land, the genre sits atop a high horse, with nowhere especially important to go.
Thomas Mallon’s novels include “Henry and Clara” and, most recently, “Bandbox.”