March, by Geraldine Brooks, is the story of Mr. March, husband of Marmee and father of the four intrepid Little Women of the book by Louisa May Alcott.
The story opens with Mr. March writing a letter home to Marmee, filled with niceties for her and his daughters. He is “thankful that she is not here, to see what I must see, to know what I am come to know. And with this thought I exculpate my censorship: I never promised I would write the truth.”
It seems that Mr. March, minister of the gospel, gentle family man, dedicated Abolitionist, seeks only to spare his wife the atrocities of war. However, this “exculpating of censorship” turns out to be a concealment of his personal history– a history that included a love affair of sorts with a slave woman, Grace Clement, whom he knew before meeting Marmee. Grace was loyal and literate, beautiful and brave. And very much a secret from Mrs. March.
Here’s the thing. The story is interesting, as you learn how he met Grace and became friendly with her, and how they came to cross paths again during the war. However, the telling of it is a bit boring. And that, I believe, is because the bulk of the narrative is told exclusively by Mr. March himself.
Only towards the end, when we get fresh perspectives from Marmee and Grace, does the pace pick up. Seeing events through their eyes breathed new life into the story, and had me wishing their points of view had been presented much earlier in the book.
Here’s an example of how the change in point of view added drama. Mr. March, preaching on the day the young soldiers marched through Concord on their way to the front, narrates:
I looked over the bent heads, and saw Marmee, her head held high, looking straight at me with tears in her eyes. She had heard a truth in my words and recognized my intention even before I knew it myself. We held each other’s gaze for a long moment. I read the question in her face as clearly as if she shouted it aloud, and I nodded.
I had said “we will go.” She knew, even before I did, that I meant it. She lifted her palms in a gesture of assent, as if to put wind beneath my wings. And so I cried out:
“I say ‘we,’ my friends, because if the army will have me, I propose to go with you.” The youths raised their heads then, and made me a great huzzah…
I stepped down from the stump, and made my way through the press to Marmee. She was so proud of me that she could not speak, but only took my hand and clasped it, the pressure of her grip hard as a man’s.
In the next chapter, we are given Marmee’s point of view:
When I saw him stand up on that tree stump in the cattle ground… I knew that as he spoke to them, he was thinking that it was unfair to lay the burden so fully on that innocent generation. I could see the look of love for those boys in his eyes, and I saw also that the moment was carrying him away. I raised my arms to him, imploring him not to say the words that I knew were forming in his mind. He looked me full in the face, he saw my tears, and he ignored them and did as he pleased. And then I in my turn had to pretend to be pleased by my hero of a husband. When he stepped down, and came to me, I could not speak. I took his hand and dug my nails into the flesh of it, wanting to hurt him for the hurt he was inflicting upon me.
Marmee had some spunk! Always so keen to aid runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, but she was, unbeknownst to her husband, firmly, morally, opposed to the war:
I was angry at myself, for not having had the courage to stand aside from the crying up of this war and say, No. Not this way. You cannot right injustice by injustice. You must not defame God by preaching that he wills young men to kill one another.
I enjoyed this fresh spin on the Marmee of Little Women, and believe the story of March would have been more energetically told had her voice been heard earlier on. And then Grace. She was by far the most compelling and likable character in the book, so her voice as well would have been welcomed much sooner.