Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The story behind the story

In its opening chapter, Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women includes a letter from Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy’s father, away serving as chaplain in the Civil War. However, the book has little else to say about Captain March until he returns home following a serious illness. March is Geraldine Brooks’ projection of all that Little Women doesn’t tell us. The first-person narration picks up where the letter in Little Women ends, and the reader begins to see what the March family – privy only to the carefully-edited details of Captain March’s epistle – cannot.

All around March are the horrors and degradations of battle, evidence of every kind of human desperation, passion, and bigotry. The war brings the idealistic March into sharp conflict with himself as current experiences dredge up memories of past victories and regrets. It is through these that the formation of March’s ideals and character are revealed, both to the reader and to March himself.

When March succumbs to a serious illness, a result of injury and deprivation, his wife takes up the narrative before it switches back to March’s perspective for the final chapters. Mrs. March’s distinctly different viewpoint offers some surprising insights into their relationship and shared history, and brings to the narrative a resolution which unites March’s past and present in a series of slightly Dickensian connections.

March remains carefully faithful to the canon created in Little Women. The author makes thoughtful reference to characteristics and concepts hinted at in the original work, ideas like Marmee’s lifelong challenge to manage her unruly temper. And just as Alcott drew on her family life to create Little Women, Brooks also relies heavily on the life of Bronson Alcott to create Captain March. Brooks’ journalistic background shines in the rich biographical material skilfully woven into good fiction. Through the foil of March’s life, the story explores Bronson Alcott’s transcendental philosophies and his friendship with Concord philosophers Thoreau and Emerson. Alcott’s anti-slavery views, controversial in the electric atmosphere of the war, find expression in the fictional March family’s interaction with the abolitionist John Brown and the installation, in their home, of a “station” for the underground railway.

Brooks’ use of historical detail is elegant and unself-conscious; the reader does not register the moments the story slips between fact and fiction. March is more authentic and more open than its wholesome predecessor, and a little riverside tryst between March and his not-yet-wife seems anachronistic with regards to the strong morals of the time. However, the writing is disciplined and measured, using words and phrases consistent with the era, yet honest, precise, and at times eerie. The account of one soldier’s last moments of life, shot and drowning in a river, has the feel of a lavish slow-motion scene accompanied by a soaring, aching musical score.

In spite of the precise language and minute descriptions, March does not lag. Even the flashback chapters, which can have a tendency to slow a narrative down, only push along this story that manages to be compelling without requiring a constant dose of action.

The result is a vivid and sometimes heartbreaking account – a love story, a quest, and a coming-of-age. Geraldine Brooks’ Captain March is less of a hero than the mostly-absent father of Little Women, but he is much more three-dimensional, a man who, throughout the course of his story, grows and changes, discovering who he is and what he believes.

Geraldine Brooks