Some authors seem to have the inside word on particular things, whether it be a place, feelings or a scene. They can cut to the heart of a matter or find the perfect words to describe something. When I read a story filled with intimate detail (I don’t mean the sexy-time kind…), I assume that the author’s own experiences have informed the work. That makes perfect sense when talking contemporary literature – I, for example, could probably write something that would resonate with a girl growing up in the eighties who was obsessed with Culture Club, swimming, Princess Diana and was Team Jessica*. So how does Geraldine Brooks do it? She’s an author from Western Australia, yet is completely and thoroughly in the heart and mind of a Union Army officer during the American Civil War.
I’d forgotten just how good Brooks is until I read March.
Brooks draws her character, known only as March, from Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. March is the absent father in Little Women, and the story of his year away from his family, is confronting and in many parts, horrifying. Most interestingly, March’s experience of war and how those experiences change his beliefs and values are as relevant today as they were during the American Civil War.
Most of the story is narrated by March, save for a handful of chapters told by his wife, known as Marmee. This, from Marmee, about war –
“I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with. The waste of it. I sit here, and I look at him, and it is as if a hundred women sit beside me: the revolutionary farm wife, the English peasant woman, the Spartan mother – ‘Come back with your shield or on it,’ she cried, because that was what she was expected to cry. And then she leaned across the broken body of her son and the words turned to dust in her throat.”
Having read Little Women is not a prerequisite (who hasn’t read Little Women?!) although it would enhance the experience. Either way, make time for Brooks’s notes at the end of the book – the detail around Little Women and the family of Louisa May Alcott is fascinating.
* A very narrow readership…