The untold tale of the absent father in “Little Women”

absent father

Skim the list of past Pulitzer and National Book Award-winners, and you won’t find many that seem familiar years after their publication. But March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006, seems destined to be read far into the future.

Like Brooks’ other two works of historical fiction, Year of Wonders and People of the Book, both international bestsellers, March is rooted in often-cultivated ground but grows into a story that is fresh, original, and deeply moving. You might not imagine that anyone could write a novel in the 21st Century about the American Civil War and create anything memorable, but Geraldine Brooks has done it.

March by Geraldine Brooks (2005) 320 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

March tells the untold tale of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s 19th Century bestseller, Little Women. Mr. March is a passionately idealistic transcendentalist preacher in Concord, a romanticized version of Alcott’s own famous father. At the advanced age of 39, he joins the Union Army as a chaplain soon after the cannons roar at Fort Sumter. The letters Mr. March writes home to his beloved wife, Marmee, paint a picture of ease and uplift, but his true experiences in the war are gruesome and traumatic. During his time with the army, he encounters Grace, a beautiful and well-spoken liberated slave whom he had briefly known and lusted after more than 20 years earlier on his travels as a peddler in the South, working to win his fortune.

The plot of the novel revolves around the intersections of his life with Grace’s, revealing the unspoken truths of relationships between whites and blacks in the antebellum South, the racism that runs as deeply among Northern troops as Southern, and the sad consequences for March’s life.

Brooks, an Australian journalist who moved to the United States for a master’s in journalism, worked for several years as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and wrote for The New Yorker as well, but there is no trace of the journalist’s detachment in any of her fiction. She approached all three of her novels from a deeply personal perspective. Year of Wonders, the fact-based tale of an isolated English village struck by the bubonic plague, grew from Brooks’ visit to the historic village. People of the Book came about in part because of her conversion to Judaism, the religion of her husband, fellow journalist Tony Horwitz. And March reflects both Brooks’ desire the learn more about the history of her newly adopted country and her husband’s deep involvement in Civil War history.

For further reading

All of the author’s books can be found at The outstanding historical fiction of Geraldine Brooks.

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