There’s a whole subgenre of literature starring minor characters from classic works. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Wicked. Wide Sargasso Sea. And, of course, my novella “Alive In Here,” which retells Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope from the point of view of the Garbage creature (available upon request).
Likewise, Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel tells the tale of Mr. March, a character plucked from the pages of Little Women. In Alcott’s novel, March has left his four young daughters in the care of his wife, Marmee, while he fights for the Union in the civil war. The girls bravely soldier on in his absence, their spirits occasionally buoyed by his inspiration letters. In March, we learn that those letters are little more than fictions. Yes, the events Mr. March writes about are real, but the optimism that infuses every word is something that he no longer feels.
As in Little Women, Peter March is here portrayed as a preacher, and it is his firmly held beliefs as an abolitionist that lead him join in the battle against the confederacy. The courage of his convictions, however, is battered as he reaches the front lines and witnesses the true horror of war. Worse still, he finds few of his comrades-in-arms share his idealism–most fight not out of revulsion of slavery, but simply because they have been at war for so long that they’ve forgotten how to do anything but.
Though most of the novel parallels the events of Little Women (Mr. March occasionally stops to write letters, allowing the reader to gauge where he is, chronologically, with the narrative in Louisa May Alcott’s book), it doesn’t confine itself to the same time frame. In fact, much of the book takes place when Mr. March was but a traveling salesman, long before he met Marmee and sired his gaggle of girls. Brooks also tweaks some of Alcott’s characters–not revising them per se, but adding additional depth. In Little Women, the mother was always around her children, and behaved accordingly; in March, there are a number of exchanges that take place exclusively between husband and wife, and well as scenes from their courtship, that cast Marmee in a new light, and show that she, like Mr. March, often put up a brave front to shield her daughters from her true feelings.
Having never read Little Women, I was worried that I wouldn’t “get” most of March (as might be the case if you read Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead without knowing the basic outline of Hamlet). As it turns out, the story is so distinct from Alcott’s novel–in terms of tone, explicitness, and its account of Mr. March’s time away from the family–as to seem almost unrelated to the classic that spawned it. Brooks’ novel so completely transcends the high-concept premise as to make the back-references to Little Women seem as more of an afterthought than the original motivation.
At any rate, don’t let unfamiliarity with the source material deter your from from reading the Pulitzer-Prize winning March. It’s a brutal account of two concurrent wars: the American civil war, and the clash between Mr. March’s deeply-held idealism and the sobering reality in which he lives.