Books: March

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.

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10 comments.

  1. I second your recommendation. I loved Little Women when I was young, and this book was a great “grown up” addition to the story. If memory serves, Brooks had a comment in the back about her mother giving her Little Women to read, but reminding her that no one is really as goody goody as Marmee in real life – so true.

  2. Does sound good. And adding to your list of minor fictional characters reborn as major ones in other works, there is of course Flashman – though his civil war papers have yet to appear.

  3. I loved Little Women and thought March was also excellent, but felt that Brooks/March had to pull too far to one extreme (the bleak, man is alone and never fully known by anyone else, etc. view) to counterbalance Alcott/Little Women (let’s all gang together and be merry in the fact of trouble, whistle while we work, tra-la-la, etc.). There’s my two cents for the day.

    While we’re tossing out great reads inspired by great literary works, The Hours is not about a minor character from fiction, but is still a great riff on a great work. The movie’s excellent, too.

  4. Try by Grendel John Gardner. I think it’s one of the original story-retold-by-minor-character novels (Beowulf). And it’s not even in Olde Englishe like the Originale.

  5. Sounds like a good book. What ever happened to you reading Moby Dick? Did you ever finish it?

  6. Oh, I would like to read “Alive in here”…

  7. I would like to read “Alive in here” too, please. So far, what i’ve read from you has been witty, funny, and/or thought-inducing. I would very much like to break this perfect streak, so the more material i have, the more likely it is that i’ll stumble on something i don’t like. Or is it?!!!

    (and because of you, i now possess Time’s Up, Lost Cities, No Thanks and a whole gamut of games i would never have thought about; i may even buy Descent. When is the next installment of games review? ^^)

  8. There’s a great pair of sci-fi books where one retells the story through a minor charactor’s perspective. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a classic sci-fi story published in 1985. In 1999 Orson Scott Card wrote Ender’s Shadow, which retells much of the same story from Bean’s point of view. Sounds like it would be boring, but it’s not. Ender seems like a really smart guy until you read about what Bean was thinking and doing.

  9. For what it’s worth, Mrs. March’s name isn’t “Marmee.” That’s the name the girls call her by, a variant of “Mommy.” When I was young, and first gripped by the pull of the March family in “Little Women,” I tried to call *my* mother “Marmee,” but she didn’t go for it. She had no idea it was an homage. Parents. Sheesh.

    Anyway, if Brooks says “Marmee” is the wife’s name, that is just profoundly jarring. I’m not sure that we ever learn Marmee’s real name in “Little Women;” despite my having read it approximately 25 times (or more–AND cried every time), I’m not recalling any reference to it, even in the letters from Mr. March.

    Mrs March is something of a cardboard character in “Little Women,” existing primarily to be the wise, tender, understanding maternal icon. There is a great scene, however, in which she reassures Meg, who is experiencing some post-newlywed marital bumps, by telling of how she had to learn to control her own anger when she was a new wife. I imagine that’s the sort of scene that Brooks takes and runs with.

    As a powerful devotee of the source material, however, I’m not sure I can deal with reading someone else’s take on it. As one of my colleagues murmured yesterday, after being subjected to one of my rants about how every single film version of “Little Women” had been an abomination, “I had no idea you were such a…fascist about reading material.”

  10. I too would like to see “Alive in Here,” if only because, written by you (Matt), it would be some sort of Herman Wouk-esque epic in which a creature best suited to live in the darkest interior muck of a garbage rooms in space stations (and somehow survives the frequent compaction– interesting biological angle there, but not more or less implausible than the odds of natural selection creating many of Lucas’ other space-bourne beasts) somehow manages to be present to witness the major events of the Empire’s war with the Rebel Alliance. Perhaps it started live as a tapeworm in Anakin Skywalker, and witnessed everything via what he ate, his peptic ulcer, and the fact that it’s surrounded by his midclorians, so it temporarily cribs off Skywalker’s expanded senses. Being a creature of the lower GI tract, it occasionally caused massive indigestion and at times constipation, which explains much of Anakin’s behavior and dialog in “Attack of the Clones.”

    Later, Darth Vader, newly trapped within the machine that replaced much of his cinder of a body, turns within and discovers the creature growing inside, and he communes with it as he expands his evil empire.

    And, in what need not be the final chapter, Darth Vader, having met an irresolvable disagreement with the creature, gets rid of it by eating very heavily at the Death Star Launch celebration and breaking in the Death Star’s hopelessly complex and theretofor untested plumbing system, the vagaries of which, like the Paris sewer, permit the creature to visit many crucial events before finding itself in the garbage disposal.

    Unfortunately, because nothing from the movie is insignificant enough to not be ripped off by the novels and other media in the “Expanded Universe” so geeks can feel nostalgic for the trash-compactor scene, the creature not only has a species name, but an origin as well. See “Dianaga:”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Star_Wars_creatures#D

    Anyway, thanks for picking the garbage pit creature, and no going for an easy laugh, like “My Life with Porkins: A Love Story” or “Bad Motivator: Advanced Robot/Starship Repair” by Jawa Johah Jawason.