Geraldine Brooks: March (2005) Literature and War Readalong March 2014


It seems I have far less stamina than before, when it comes to finishing books I don’t like, even when they are my own readalong choices. While I did finish this novel, I must admit I read large portions of it diagonally, after having suffered through the first 15o pages. I’m not quite sure why I disliked March so much, I only know I did.

March tells the imagined story of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The father of the four girls has joined the Northern troops as a chaplain. The father is the narrator of the book – with the exception of a few chapters towards the end, which are told by his wife. Many of the chapters start with a letter to his wife, then they describe things that happen in the present and move back to the past, showing how March developed a sensibility for the cause or how he became an abolitionist.

As a young man, March toured the South as a peddler and that’s how he came into contact with Grace, a very cultivated and intelligent slave.  Together they wanted to teach a young girl to read and write, an undertaking that had fatal consequences. March falls in love with Grace and when he meets her again, later in the book, now a married man and father, it puts a lot of emotional pressure on him.

For the creation of the character March, Geraldine Brooks used the biography of Louisa May Alcott’s father Bronson Alcott. She introduces real characters like Emerson and Thoreau and the militant abolitionist John Brown. Introducing real characters, giving March the biography of a real person, could have made this book very authentic, but for me that’s what made it artificial and turned it into a pamphlet.

The many scenes leading to March’s awareness of the mistreatment of slaves and the stories that took place during the war, are harrowing and described in great detail, but they didn’t work for me either because of the voice. The biggest problem I had with this book was the voice. The tone was that of a goody-goody and often mawkish and preachy. At no time did I have the feeling of being transported to 19th Century America, but I never forgot that I read a book written by a 21st Century author with all the sensibilities of our time, with our thoughts, feelings and outrage about slavery. I’m sure that people who fought against slavery at the time, were outraged as well, still, it didn’t ring true. What diminished the message in this book was the combination of anti-slavery views and transcendentalist beliefs, which led to a peculiar mix that annoyed me.

Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer for this book, but, frankly, I don’t understand why. The style is heavy and preachy, the tone mawkish. The only passages that worked were the descriptions. Those were great.


Other reviews


March is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. Discussion starts on Monday 28 April, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

35 thoughts on “Geraldine Brooks: March (2005) Literature and War Readalong March 2014

    • All those who commented on the intro post loved it, but some said it was a love or hate type of book.
      I know your taste a bit and I could imagine that this wouldn’t work for you.
      The tone of that was annoyed me so, so much.

  1. I’m going to admit to a personal annoyance when writers latch on to other books and write these extensions. It seems to be cheating in some sort of undefined way–although I realize that Austen has generated an entire industry of hangers on.

    • There are some – like Jean Rhys – who can really pull it off but many can’t.
      I just hated that the charcater. Of course, he’s a chpalian, so preachy was to be expected. My bad.
      And it showed me once more why I often don’t like historical novels.

      • Yes, you’re right about jean Rhys. Her prequel was very original. I also have a difficult time with characters who are very religious if the preachiness becomes part of the novel. Historical novels are usually fails for me too.

        • I thought this was very preachy and it had a lot of what i don’t really like in historical novels.
          Too bad no onel else wrote a review. It would have been interesting to read another opinion.

  2. I read liked Year of Wonders by her, but can I ever not get into March! I was hoping the read-along would finally lead to me finishing it, but here it is the end of the month and I still failed. (My copy of Toby’s Room isn’t here yet. I am pretty sure I ordered one. I must go investigate!)

    • It’s a consolation to hear you found it hard to get into as well. I’ve read a couple of reviews by critics and they all hailed her other books. I start to assume, she won the Pulitzer far more for the topic than the book as such. It was such a drag.
      I hope you’ll get Toby’s Room in time.

  3. I’m sorry you didn’t like the book. It can be a real drag when you HAVE to finish a book you don’t enjoy. I personally really liked March. I thought it was very effective in showing how efforts to spare someone some pain can come back and hurt them even worse in the future. I hope your next book will work much better for you!

    • I have to agree, that’s something she showed well but when I dislike a tone/voice I start to “hear” it constnatly and it interferes with my experience. I remember you said on the intro post that you liked it. It didn’t help that I felt like I had to read it.

  4. I often struggle with the application of modern sensibilities within historical fiction, but I found March’s voice to be consistent with that of his family as presented in Alcott’s books. He would necessarily have a somewhat wider world view, having been in a position to hear out and counsel parishioners in crisis. I’m sorry, too, that you were disappointed with this book. I love it.

    • I’m glad to hear other opinions. I have not read Little Women but I’ve heard some people say that it had sentimental passages, so maybe that’s what went into this book too.
      I had the feeling she was writing with an agenda and that’s something I don’t like.

  5. Oh, that is disappointing. I have to admit I didn’t like the premise to begin with. It’s been decades since I read Little Women, but my only recollection of the father is that he was absent and longed-for. That gave the author a lot to run with, but it doesn’t sound appealing at all.
    Sorry you had to slog through it, Caroline.

    • It was disappointing. It really seems a love or hate book. The premise as such didn’t sound bad too me but to mix the real people into it and the prwachy tone.

  6. So you preferred the first two Civil War novels. Good for you – I’m proud of you!

    I watched “Little Women” (the Winona Ryder version) to prep for this book so I expect extra credit.

    I had to use an audio version, but I think it may have enhanced the experience since the book is told in first person and the reader was very good and it was not the slog that you went through.

    I thought it started well, but by the end I was more and more aggravated. You already know I don’t like nonlinear usually. I did not mind the writing. I feel Brooks set up some interesting scenarios and then fumbled them because her main character reflected her sensibilities by being a wimp. I knew I was in trouble when she suddenly pulled him out of his role as a chaplain (which had a lot of potential for a different perspective on the war) and plunked him with the contrabands.

    I could have strangled March when he blew the attempt to rescue the slaves from the evil marauders. The book jumped the shark for me there. Such wasted potential for catharsis. Typical female author, sorry but that’s my experience.

    I also found the last few chapters tedious. I did not like the shift to the wife’s perspective, but I could see the necessity and at least we did not to hear March whining as much. First, he’s a wimp and then he does not want to go home to his family. Give me a break!

    It’s a male author next, right?

    • I’m going to disregard your sexist comments. Duh.
      And no, next up is Pat Barker who is a woman but . . .
      Yes, I’m araid I agree, I found him wimpish as well. Moaning. He had no punch whatsoever.
      That jump to the wives’ point of view didn’t work for me at all. Not in a book like this. Sure, I saw why but she should have come up with another solution.
      I didn’t get many of her story decisions. Contraband etc. The whole book felt much more like someone wanting to illustrate a cause than like true story telling.
      Yeah well.

      • I’m glad we agree on almost everything lol. I did not mean to offend, but few would argue that men write good romance novels so why is it wrong to say women do not have a knack for war stories?

        What do you make of the fact that Marmee has more guts than her husband?

        BTW I wish you had not pointed out that Barker is female. Now I am doomed to hate the next book. I guess I can try to have an open mind. Just for you.

        • I just don’t see why gender should get into the evaluation of a book. March isn’t really all that much of a war story. If anything, I thought she was too influenced by her husband’s research on the Civil War.
          And there are a few men really great at romances it seems – although they publish under a pseudonym. I think this kind of biased judgement is below you.
          Maybe I shouldn’t have told you and you’d never have guessed that Pat Barker is a woman. I missed an opportunity.
          Apart from your gender bias – yes, we agree.

  7. Sorry to know that you didn’t like Geraldine Brooks’ novel as much as you had hoped to, Caroline. Sometimes literary prize winners are not really readable and one wonders why they won the prize in the first place. I read ‘Little Women’ when I was in school, and so can’t remember much of it, though I remember liking the book very much. It reminded me very much of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at that time and Jo made me think of Elizabeth Bennet. The character of the father as presented in ‘March’ doesn’t seem to be consistent to the one I imagined based on Louisa Alcott’s book, but it has been so long and so I might be wrong. I liked what Guy said about writing extensions of famous classics. Here it is an industry in my language with respect to one particular historical novel (called ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ – Ponni’s Son) – everyone seems to have written a sequel to it.

    Hope you enjoy your next book more. Hope you also get to read ‘Little Women’ sometime. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    • I’m sure I’ll like Little Women better but this didn’t work. Not so much because of the idea but because of the way she told it. I didn’t like the charcater March. I found him mawkish and a real wimp, just like Kevin said.
      It’s not always clear why we have such strong reactions. I really had to force myself to pick up the book.
      I haven’t heard of Ponni’s Son but there’s the Jane Austen industry, of course.

      • Yeah, the Jane Austen industry is amazing 🙂 I have read one book from that – ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ by Karen Joy Fowler which I liked. I hope to read another called ‘The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet’ by Colleen McCullough someday.

        • I really liked The Jane Austen Book Club but maybe because it was about Austen but not really a prequel/sequel kind of thing.
          Tom form Wuthering Expectations recommended a few though – they are a bit metafictional and sounded good. Hopefully I’ll get to them. I hadn’t heard of The Independece of Miss Mary bennet. I’ll wait for your review.

          • Hope you enjoy reading the Jane Ausen-y books. ‘The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet’ is a sequel to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and tells the story from Mary Bennet’s perspective. She comes as a bookish person and that is what appealed to me very much – a heroine who reads a lot and writes – how it is possible tor resist that 🙂 I will look forward to reading it. Will let you know how it is.

  8. Too bad that this was so disappointing. The concept had lots of promise.

    Kudos for you for finishing, if you had not you might have always wondered if the book might have gotten better or pulled things together at the end.

    As for the anachronistic ideas and attitudes, such things always annoy me in literature.

    • It didn’t get better. On the contraray. the beginning was rather more promising. IT was amixed bag in the end and for me, the negative aspects were much stronger.

  9. I’ve had this sitting on my TBR pile for quite a while – a charity shop find. Oddly the fact that you didn’t love it the way everyone else did,encourages me to get on and read it. I say ‘oddly’ but I’ve found before now that when people can’t agree over a book, I’m more intrigued about it and want to check it out for myself.

    • That’s something I really get and I’ve done the exact same thing before. It’s interesting to find out. Sometimes when someone writes a negative review I even know that i will like it because what the perosn couldn’t enjoy is something I like.
      I hope you’ll let me know what you think of it.

  10. I have absolutely no respect for the Pulitzer as a literary prize. If anything for me it’s a negative pointer, it seems a prize awarded more for worthy intentions than literary merit.

    That aside, what’s the point of linking this to Little Women? The story doesn’t sound like it requires it. Is it shedding some light on the other book? Or is it just piggybacking it?

    Modern sentiments in historical novels are an absolute dealbreaker for me. It just becomes an exercise in sanctimony, look how much nicer we are than our ancestors. Much more interesting to explore their thoughts, their world, as they saw it.

    • Yes and yes! That’s how I felt about this book. I really had a feeling she recived the prize for her intentions. And piggybacking Little Women was pretty much what I thought too. It could be any man’s story. It really annoyed me.

Thanks for commenting, I love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.